Archdiocese prepares to mark National Child Abuse Prevention Month

BRAINTREE -- Since 2002, the Office of Pastoral Support and Child Protection has overseen efforts to keep children protected and has provided support to those who have been victims of clergy sexual abuse. The office works throughout the year to educate the public on its efforts and on ways to prevent child abuse, and in April, National Child Abuse Prevention Month, the office is doubling down on getting that information out to the public.

In preparation for the month, the office is sending out posters promoting child protection, and is encouraging parishes to talk about National Child Abuse Prevention Month in their bulletins. A Mass of Thanksgiving for those serving in Child Protection Ministries is planned for April 1.

"The ministry of keeping kids safe is critical to the Church, and it's not just something that we do because a charter tells us that we have to. All of the efforts that go into keeping kids safe in parishes are far beyond just checking off a box," said Vivian Soper, director of the Office of Pastoral Support and Child Protection, March 29.

"Our goal with all of this is to get that message out there, to get it to be part of people's talking points," she said.

Part of the efforts the Archdiocese of Boston has made to keep children safe include the "Protecting God's Children" training, which is a requirement for adult volunteers and employees with the Church.

Developed by VIRTUS, a program created by the U.S. National Catholic Risk Retention Group, the training teaches adults how to recognize signs of child abuse, what to do if something is wrong, and various steps that can be taken to help prevent abuse, such as learning how to create safe spaces for children in the churches.

The training, said Soper, not only helps keep children safer in Church environments, but also in communities, as those who go through training are then "bringing that into their lives, into their community, into their neighborhoods, in their family, so we don't only impact time spent in Church functions."

Since 2004, she noted, the archdiocese has trained over 190,000 people in abuse prevention.

Adult employees and volunteers are also required to undergo background screenings. "A piece of what we've done" with the trainings and the screenings is to make "the Catholic Church an unappealing place for someone looking for access to kids," said Soper.

Children also receive training, both in religious education classes and in Catholic schools, Soper explained. The training is "age appropriate," and focuses on teaching children how to keep themselves safe.

The training covers a large variety of topics, including internet safety, but "at each age, it gives kids skills and the knowledge to say 'I need to tell if something happens, I need to tell if something makes me uncomfortable, I need to tell if I get scared, and if the first person I tell doesn't do anything about it, I need to tell somebody else,'" Soper said.

"What happened in the Church in the past is tragic, horrific, terrible. No question about that. It should never have happened and the fact that it did is a major tragic failure," she said.

Yet, she added, "It's a very different time and a very different place" compared to 20 years ago.

"The way that the Church responds if there is a problem is quick and completely and openly," she said. "It's not done behind a veil of secrecy at this point."

The Mass of Thanksgiving for thoe serving in Child Protectio Ministries, to be held April 1 at Our Lady Help of Christians Parish in Newton, will be celebrated by Bishop Mark O'Connell, and will feature a special video message from Cardinal O'Malley.

The Mass is meant to thank "the thousands of hours that people have put into this and all of the eyes that are out there watching over kids and making sure that kids are safe, and there are thousands and thousands of eyes out there now, watching over to help keep kids safe," Soper said.

Keeping children safe, is "not just a task, it's a ministry. It's up to all of us as a Church to do everything we can to keep kids safe," said Soper.