Monday, November 16, 2009

Protecting Children

The evil that men do often has consequences that nobody could have predicted. All too often, these consequences are not the direct result of the evil deed itself, but of the reaction to that deed. In an effort to make sure that it doesn’t happen again, we institute policies that create a whole new set of problems.

I volunteer as an adult mentor in an apostolate for boys. All such volunteers and all parish staff members are required to undergo training. In the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, we have to read a policy book and view a video that, together, are called the Decree on Child Protection. The Decree outlines what we can and cannot (mostly cannot) do with youth. It is designed to protect young people from predatory adults, and most of the proscriptions are common-sense. However, at least twice, we have had to undergo an additional round of training after the Decree was revised. Most recently, the revisions consisted of the addition of explicit language to the lists of forbidden behaviors. We were told that some defense attorneys were actually arguing that the prohibitions in the Decree were too vague – their clients couldn’t possibly have known that they couldn’t touch certain areas of a child’s body unless those specific body parts were specifically named in the Decree. So now it does. Does anyone still wonder why lawyers are among the most despised professionals in the country?

In addition to the Decree training, I had to be finger-printed and subjected to a background investigation. On top of what the Archdiocese requires, all volunteers in this particular apostolate also undergo a separate background check every year and are required to complete an on-line child protection training module.

The effect of all this training should be some very safe kids; however, this is where the unintended consequences start creeping in. Any apostolate (or ministry, if you prefer the term) to children is going to require a large pool of volunteers. The new volunteer requirements guarantee that eligible volunteers will be harder to get, and those who complete the training will be paranoid about violating the smallest requirement of the Decree. Evangelical outreach to children will suffer in that programs unable to cajole enough people into volunteering will never even get of the ground, and those who find the Decree to be too burdensome might choose to take their programs underground, neither of which is in the best interest of the youth.

Perhaps an example from my own experience can better illustrate the point that I’m trying to make.

In our apostolate, we segregate the boys into three different groups based on age. Each meeting has two distinct parts – a sports phase (typically dodge-ball or similar games) and a spiritual formation phase (in which the boys might hear a story about a saint, prepare and act out skits illustrating virtuous behavior, answer catechism questions, etc. – boys in the oldest group also reflect upon and discuss a gospel passage). Experience has shown that the younger boys do better if the sports phase is first. The older boys enjoy doing sports last. So, for half of each meeting, we have the younger boys in the gym and the older boys in the Parish Center, and then they switch.

Several weeks ago, our younger boys were engaged in a competitive game of dodge-ball when three boys not in our program wondered into the gym and watched from the stands. When the time came for the younger groups to head over to the Parish Center, four of the five dads/volunteers accompanied the boys, because the Decree requires at least two adults per group. I remained behind to hold down the gym until the group of older boys returned (along with their two adult volunteers).

That left me alone in the gym with the three young strangers, and my over-riding concern was getting them out of the gym, because the Decree forbids me from being alone with them. They had questions about our program. It would have been a great opportunity to share with them what we were all about and to invite them to join us. But I missed the chance to share the love of Christ with them because my first concern was to never, ever, be alone with children to whom I am not related. Instead of engaging them in conversation, I shooed them away. I might have complied with the Decree, but those boys certainly are not better off because of it. I failed.

I hate the Decree. I hate that the Decree is necessary. I hate that unscrupulous lawyers looking for loopholes require the Archdiocese to include specific, vulgar, and profane language in a document designed to protect the innocence of children. I hate that when I see a priest dining with a boy in a restaurant, my first thought is “Oh my gosh! He’s violating the Decree!” I hate that some children, even with the Decree, will still fall victim to sexual predators while other children, because of the Decree, will miss the chance to enter into a life-giving relationship with Christ.

The evil that men do sends ripples outward, often with secondary effects that no one would have predicted.


Anonymous said...

Like you said--I hate that it has to be there to protect not only children but also adults. Very sad!!!

Shelli said...

I want you to know as a parent of one of those boys, I appreciate that you take time away from your family to go to those kind of lovely things and have your life examined under a microscope so that we know you are safe. It's not fun or pleasant and takes time but thank you.