Efforts to address child abuse take hold in KC diocese

The May 2011 firestorm over the handling of a disgraced Catholic priest’s production of child pornography prompted the local church to undertake the most far-reaching child protection reforms in its history.

And since then, the years have been pretty busy for the women at the center of the changes.

“I feel we have made tremendous strides in training,” said Jenifer Valenti, the ombudsman for the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.

Since Bishop Robert Finn announced new child protection measures in the wake of the Shawn Ratigan scandal, the program has been cemented into place by a Jackson County judge who demanded regular reports on child welfare in the diocese after convicting the bishop last September of failing to report suspicions of child abuse, a misdemeanor.

One local cleric said that given the heightened scrutiny on the church, having Valenti, a former prosecutor, available to pursue complaints and answer questions is critical.

“The transparency is an important issue and needs to be,” said the Rev. Joseph Nassal, the provincial director of the Missionaries of the Precious Blood. “She’s brought a voice that provides a balanced approach. It’s not an in-house kind of thing.”

Passing the second anniversary of the disclosure that Ratigan had taken hundreds of lewd photos of young girls, this summer promises to be a particularly busy period in child protection efforts.

Valenti and Carrie Cooper, the diocese’s director of child and youth protection, are preparing for on-site visits this fall by auditors working for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which issues annual reports on how dioceses are complying with the 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.

In their most recent report, issued earlier this month, auditors complained that they had been hampered by “the unwillingness of most dioceses to allow us to conduct parish audits during their on-site audits.”

“The auditors must rely solely on the information provided by the diocese instead of observing the program firsthand,” the report noted.

The auditors will find no such frustration here, Cooper pledged. The parish doors will be open, she said.

“I want them to see what the parishes are doing,” Cooper said.

Valenti, who is the diocese’s initial point of contact on sex abuse claims, also is preparing to release her second annual report in August.

Although Valenti still is writing the report, she expects to see fewer sex abuse complaints reported this year but more cases that she has classified as “referrals.”

Referrals are cases that fall outside her diocesan jurisdiction — for example if a school official or worker suspected a child was being abused at home. She still reports those cases to police and the Missouri Abuse Hotline, though.

About half of the 79 cases she reported last year were referrals. The rest were evenly split between abuse and “boundary violation” complaints.

Cooper said that training will continue throughout the summer. With Catholic schools finishing the academic year, teachers and day-care providers will begin formal training in their roles as mandated reporters of child abuse.

Teachers already are familiar with those requirements, Cooper acknowledged, but her program also has units to help educators spot child pornography, child obscenity and child erotica. Already, more than 650 diocesan employees, including clergy and school principals, have taken the training, Cooper said.

The church has switched vendors for background checks and now is working with a company that also has agreed to advise on on safety and security issues at schools and parishes.

Kit Bond Corporate Protection Services currently is surveying the diocese’s facilities and reviewing safety policies to protect children and employees from a variety of threats, including assaults and school shootings.

Company President Mauri Sheer, a former Secret Service agent and U.S. marshal, said Valenti and Cooper are thinking of safety in global terms.

“They’re very proactive,” Sheer said. “Frankly, there’s more to keeping a child safe than protecting them from sexual predators.”