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Diocese brings new resources to safe environment commitment

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Indiana Department of Child Services regional manager Ellis Dumas III speaks about protocol for reporting cases of suspected abuse of minors, to those gathered at the annual Safe Environment conference in Vamos Hall at Our Lady of Consolation in Merrillville on May 6. (Anthony D. Alonzo photo)

 

by Anthony D. Alonzo

Northwest Indiana Catholic

 

      MERRILLVILLE ­– New initiatives and additional manpower have been parlayed into the Diocese of Gary’s long standing goal of protecting youth and vulnerable adults.

      Directors of religious education, teachers, principals and facilitators gathered for presentations by diocesan officials, agency managers and a local township trustee at the annual Safe Environment conference in Vamos Hall at Our Lady of Consolation in Merrillville on May 6.

      Indiana Department of Child Services regional manager Ellis Dumas spoke as an advocate for improved communication between those who may have witnessed abuse and state agencies and law enforcement that conduct investigations.

      “When you make a report, you can tell us anything you’ve (observed),” said Dumas, who is also a member of the county Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Task Forces. “We don’t know, what we don’t know.”

      He applauded the Catholic Church’s coordinated efforts to provide training for prevention of misconduct by those in its employ, and its transparency to the point that the Church has become a model for organizational safe environment efforts. He stressed that abuse is found in every corner of society and not predicted by age, ethnic, gender, racial, religious, or other demographic categories.

      Dumas is the parent of fourchildren, three of whom attend St. Mary Catholic Community School of Crown Point. He is also a volunteer Catholic Youth Organization coach in basketball and track. 

      Dumas’ presentation preceded the arrival of North Township Trustee Frank J. Mrvan, who briefly spoke about initiatives where government and non-profit organizations have worked together to discover the extent of abuse.

      Mrvan detailed the “No More Secrets” initiative, when last year the outreach and listening campaign his office directed included visits to all public and private schools in his five-municipality township. The visits uncovered 73 boys and girls who came forward to report instances of sexual abuse in their lives.

      “(These youth) were able to get help from Child Protective Services and therapy,” Mrvan said. “Studies show, the sooner (someone) is able to get help, the better chance (they) have to be a survivor and a thriver.”

      According to Cheryl Grandys, diocesan benefits and safe environment coordinator, diocesan schools have met with success in the first year of its partnership with “Empowering God’s Children,” an initiative developed by the VIRTUS online service.

      VIRTUS is the national resource of best practice programs designed to assist Church and Church-affiliated entities to prevent wrongdoings, especially related to the sexual abuse of minors. The online children’s programs are tailored to connect age-specific multimedia and workbook companion materials with youth and their parents, teachers, or catechists.

      “We think it is important to have consistency so that all of our children in school and in religious education can have the same program at the same time of the year,” Grandys said. “We did a little trial run (of the children’s program) in six locations, and the feedback was very good.”

      Furthering the professionalism and knowledge-base of the diocese’s commitment to promoting a safe environment, a review board of predominantly Catholic individuals serving in diverse professions was posted.

      “Their number one goal is to review any claims (of abuse) against clergy and to assist in the review of our policies and procedures to ensure that they are up-to-date and working perfectly,” said Kelly Venegas, diocesan human resources director and safe environment director.

      Venegas said the board reviews claims and make recommendations for the annual safe environment audit of the diocese, which will be completed by Stonebridge Business Partners in September of this year.

      Deacon Philip Coduti of St. John the Evangelist in St. John is a special agent of the Department of Homeland Security’s Chicago office, and a member of the review board. Through initiatives, such as the Office of Partnership and Engagement Blue Campaign, issues such as human trafficking, or the coercive exploitation of people for labor or sexual acts, have been raised to the forefront of societal concern.

      For all the investigative resources the DHS brings to bear to protect U.S. citizens, especially children, Deacon Coduti believes there is much power wielded by parents, who can never be too vigilant regarding the safety of their children and the use of communications technology.

      “Parents have to be very careful what they post online because there are individuals out there that will try to track that information back,” Deacon Coduti explained, regarding geoloction data that is embedded in some photos taken on smartphones and cameras.

      He continued: “The most important thing a parent can do when they talk to their children is to explain that there are dangers online. Also, let the child know that no matter what happens online that they can come and talk to the parents.”

      For more information about diocesan safe environment initiatives, call Safe Environment director Kelly Venegas at 769-9292 ex. 224. For more information about safe environment education, visit virtusonline.org. Department of Homeland Security resources on human trafficking are available at dhs.gov/blue-campaign.

 

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Kelly Venegas, diocesan Safe Environment and human resources director interacts with guest speakers and facilitators gathered at the annual Safe Environment conference in Vamos Hall at Our Lady of Consolation in Merrillville on May 6. Venegas said existing programs and new initiatives promoting child safety will be evaluated during the annual safe environment audit completed by an outside firm in September. (Anthony D. Alonzo photo)

  

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