This article is the second in a three-part series about how the Archdiocese of Detroit responds to, works to prevent and seeks to help victims of sexual abuse. 

DETROIT — When it comes to sexual misconduct and abuse by clergy and church personnel, even one such case is one too many.

That’s why, in addition to implementing robust policies and procedures designed to respond swiftly and decisively to allegations of abuse, and training personnel dedicated to assisting victims, the Archdiocese of Detroit invests heavily in training programs and background checks to stop abuse before it begins.

For retired Michigan Appeals Court Judge Michael Talbot, chairman of the archdiocesan Review Board, and Msgr. G. Michael Bugarin, Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron’s delegate for matters of clergy and church personnel misconduct, such programs prove a reverse of the old adage: In this case, the best offense is a good defense.

As a result of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, adopted in 2002 by the U.S. bishops in the wake of the sexual abuse crisis, nearly every diocese in the country employs safe environment programs designed to shine light on circumstances where sexual abuse might occur, teaching children to identify dangerous situations, and training adults to spot warning signs and to report potential misconduct whenever they see it.

Safe environment training and annual audits

In the Archdiocese of Detroit, more than 104,000 adults have been trained through a national program, VIRTUS' Protecting God’s Children, created by the National Catholic Risk Retention Group. It is mandatory for all clergy, employees and church representatives, as well as volunteers with unsupervised access to children or vulnerable adults.

The program has been conducted in the Archdiocese of Detroit since 2002, said Msgr. Bugarin. And while background checks are meant to keep abusers from entering church ministry, safe environment programs target the entire community, creating an army of individuals with the ability to spot dangerous or suspicious situations and to respond quickly and correctly.

“It’s a very difficult program to go through, but it’s very insightful, and it does teach you a lot,” Msgr. Bugarin said. “It teaches people to look out for the signs of abuse, how to seek help, who to contact, what civil authorities to contact, and how to make a report if you’re a mandated reporter. It’s a three-hour session, and if people think they’re going there to just watch a simple presentation, it’s much more than that.”

Sharon Gorman, the Archdiocese of Detroit’s safe environment coordinator since 2009, says approximately 6,000 adults are trained each year in the archdiocese, about 60 percent of whom are volunteers.

In the past, abuse prevention programs focused primarily on teaching children to “run away from strangers,” Gorman said, “but in fact, 89 percent of children are abused by someone they know.”

Protecting God’s Children responds to that reality by recognizing the need for adults to be vigilant and aware of a child’s surroundings, and to take action when warning signs are present.

“Historically, it was a topic that wasn’t discussed, and that had an impact on those who were abused,” Gorman said. “They didn’t speak up, or when they did, they weren’t believed by adults. With the training programs in place for adults to recognize that behavior, it helps everyone to understand that children don’t lie about abuse. It opens up the door to the conversation, so someone doesn’t have to suffer in silence.”

“Historically, it was a topic that wasn’t discussed, and that had an impact on those who were abused,” Gorman said. “They didn’t speak up, or when they did, they weren’t believed by adults. With the training programs in place for adults to recognize that behavior, it helps everyone to understand that children don’t lie about abuse. It opens up the door to the conversation, so someone doesn’t have to suffer in silence.”

Nearly anyone who works in a regular capacity in the Church is required to go through the training, but certain individuals — such as teachers, principals or social workers — have a greater responsibility as “mandatory reporters” of abuse, meaning they are required by law to report any suspicions of potential abuse, either to their superiors or to authorities.

“There’s a long list of people who are required to report, and the list has expanded over the years, and rightfully so,” Judge Talbot said. “It’s social workers, teachers, principals of schools — people who have contact with young people who might learn something.”

Taking the decision of whether to report suspected abuse or neglect out of the hands of an individual removes any hesitation the person might harbor over what others might think, Judge Talbot said.

“This takes the burden off, in some respects, because they don’t have any option for discretion. It’s mandatory to report, or they commit a crime.” Judge Talbot said. “We’ve seen situations, where, let’s say, a principal is acting inappropriately. It tells you that the system is working when a young person reports to a counselor what happened and the counselor picks up the phone, not only to report it to the archdiocese, but also to report it to social services, which the counselor is obligated to do. That tells us the system is working, and that protects young people. That’s our highest priority.”

Adults aren’t the only ones required to go through safe environment training. Each year, more than 29,000 children in Catholic schools and 39,000 in religious education programs are taught how to identify potential warning signs of abuse through various age-appropriate programs.

For instance, the Circle of Grace program for elementary and high school students enrolled in religious education teaches students “to recognize God’s love by understanding that each of us lives and moves within a Circle of Grace” as well as “to seek help from a trusted adult, reinforcing God’s presence in their real life struggles,” according to a description of the program.

In younger grades, students are taught to identify what types of secrets are safe and unsafe, how to avoid dangers on the internet, and proper relationships with adults and peers. In older grades, students learn to recognize boundary violations and how to spot “grooming” behaviors, as well as a proper understanding of love through St. John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body.”

In younger grades, students are taught to identify what types of secrets are safe and unsafe, how to avoid dangers on the internet, and proper relationships with adults and peers. In older grades, students learn to recognize boundary violations and how to spot “grooming” behaviors, as well as a proper understanding of love through St. John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body.”

“Early in the program, children learn that they are created in the image of God, and that their body is sacred,” Gorman said. “We use the concept of the ‘circle of grace’ — good things belong in it, bad things don’t — and nobody has the right to violate that circle.”

Parents can opt out of having their children complete the programs, and that information is included in an annual audit.

In addition to mandatory training, codes of conduct and criminal background checks at the archdiocesan level and at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, each parish and school has a designated safe environment coordinator who is responsible for ensuring checks are done and all volunteers and staff have been trained, Msgr. Bugarin said. This data then is reported to the archdiocese.

“Parishes also have to go through an annual audit instrument,” Msgr. Bugarin said. 

In turn, the archdiocese itself is required to submit to an annual audit by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which collects the data and issues an annual report.

The audit, facilitated by StoneBridge Business Partners of Rochester, N.Y., is conducted on site every three years — including random visits to parishes — and via paper reporting during off-site years. The last on-site audit was conducted in 2017 in the Archdiocese of Detroit, which was found to be in compliance with the terms of the Dallas charter.

“We have to ask every parish, and there has to be 100 percent returns on the survey,” Msgr. Bugarin said. “They’ll get emails from me and emails and phone calls from Sharon Gorman, [the archdiocese’s safe environment coordinator,] and we’ll hunt down every parish until they complete it. And we will audit that information ourselves, going back to make sure the data is correct and to watch the trends.

“Over time, people have become accustomed to the audit, so it’s a lot easier for them to fill it out than it was in the past. People have some familiarity with it,” Msgr. Bugarin said. “But it is essential for us to know how many people have gone through the program, how many volunteers have direct access to kids, whether there are any staff members who are untrained, and who has not been trained and why, and when they are going to be trained.”

Programs having an effect, but work remains

While sexual abuse remains a problem in society and in the Church, there is evidence that the programs put in place by the USCCB and in dioceses across the United States are having an effect.

According to a study by the Georgetown-based Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, just 22 new cases of clergy sexual abuse are alleged to have occurred in the United States between 2015 and 2017. While no amount of abuse can be tolerated, those numbers are dramatically lower than the peak decades of the 1960s, ‘70s and early ‘80s, and the number of new cases has continued to decline since the adoption of the Dallas charter in 2002.

“The number of cases coming in has certainly gone down in every single diocese that does a good job in terms of its programs,” Judge Talbot said. “That’s certainly true of the Archdiocese of Detroit. And the allegations that are coming in are almost always about incidents from some years ago, and maybe the priest is even deceased.”

“The number of cases coming in has certainly gone down in every single diocese that does a good job in terms of its programs,” Judge Talbot said. “That’s certainly true of the Archdiocese of Detroit. And the allegations that are coming in are almost always about incidents from some years ago, and maybe the priest is even deceased.”

The archdiocese still encourages people to report their abuse regardless of when it took place, Judge Talbot said.

“I think that’s why you’ll hear us often say that we don’t want anyone to be discouraged to report a case from some years ago,” Judge Talbot said. “We understand how difficult it is to come to terms with what happened and be prepared to speak about it.”

In fact, bringing old cases of abuse to light can help identify ways the Church can do a better job protecting children and abuse victims today, he said. And that knowledge isn’t just applicable in the Church; it might also protect people from an abusive family member, neighbor, spouse or friend.

“There are individuals now who are coming forward and saying, ‘I was a victim. I didn’t do anything wrong; just the opposite. And I’m prepared to talk about that if it would help inform others,’” Judge Talbot said.

The programs are doing the job for which they were intended, Msgr. Bugarin said.

“There are many times that we as a Review Board will realize a particular case clearly shows that Protecting God’s Children worked, because someone spoke up,” Msgr. Bugarin said. “Someone went to the proper authority. Someone was wise enough to help a young kid realize that what’s happening is not right. People always walk out of these programs with a whole new level of insight, and a whole new level of attentiveness to abuse and the abuse crisis.”

To learn more about the Archdiocese of Detroit’s safe environment policies, codes of conduct and programs, including Protecting God’s Children for adults and various age-appropriate programs for children and teens, visit protect.aod.org/training-screening.

Individuals wishing to report suspected sexual misconduct or child abuse within archdiocesan institutions and ministries are encouraged to report abuse directly to law enforcement. To speak to the Archdiocese's Victim Assistance Coordinator, please call (866) 343-8055 or email vac@aod.org

VIRTUS Protecting God’s Children: A Plan to Protect God’s Children (the five steps to preventing abuse)

  1. Know the Warning Signs: Knowing the warning signs means we can recognize the early signs of an inappropriate relationship between adults and children and can identify potential abuse before it happens.
  2. Control Access through Screening: We are careful about who we allow to work with our children and include items that must be completed prior to ministry.
  3. Monitor all Ministries and Programs: All ministries and programs should be supervised to ensure that proper policies and procedures are followed to keep children safe.  If an abuser knows that someone is watching, they have more trouble finding opportunities to abuse without getting caught.
  4. Be Aware of Child and Youth Behavior: When we observe and communicate with our children we are more likely to detect the signs if they are in danger.
  5. Communicate Your Concerns: Communicating concerns means confronting or telling someone when you are uncomfortable with a situation or discussing suspected abuse with a state official and supervisor.  It means paying attention to your own feelings and not waiting until it is too late.