Working in Child and Youth Protection: A Deacon's Perspective

By Deacon Robert M. de Silva, Director

Office for the Protection of Children and YouthDiocese of Arlington, Virginia

children-310223_640I will never forget during my formation as a Catholic Permanent Deacon in 2007, the day when the diocesan Victim Assistance Coordinator brought in two victim/survivors to speak with my class. We wept though their testimonies and, at the same time, became excited to hear that our Bishop and diocese had committed to be proactive in healing the wounds of those who have tragically been victims of sexual abuse. I will be honest – it was a turning point in the discernment of my vocation. Shortly after my ordination, imagine my surprise when my Bishop asked me to assume a position in our diocese in the Office for the Protection of Children and Young People as its Director.

That being said, I have been involved in presenting the child safe environment training for a number of years and so, my experience is two-fold: at the diocesan level and at the grassroots parish level.

It has been a little over 14 years since the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops (USCCB) developed the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People (known as the Charter) to address allegations of clerical sexual abuse against minors. The Charter also serves to provide a general road map for promoting healing, education and of course, accountability.

Article 12 of the Charter[1] states:

Dioceses/eparchies are to maintain “safe environment” programs which the diocesan/eparchial bishop deems to be in accord with Catholic moral principles. They are to be conducted cooperatively with parents, civil authorities, educators, and community organizations to provide education and training for children, youth, parents, ministers, educators, volunteers, and others about ways to make and maintain a safe environment for children and young people. Dioceses/eparchies are to make clear to clergy and all members of the community the standards of conduct for clergy and other persons in positions of trust with regard to children. <emphasis added>

On the diocesan level, this means that my diocese, the Catholic Diocese of Arlington, uses four programs for age-appropriate “youthsafe” environment programs:

  • Kindergarten – 8th grade: Formation in Christian Chastity
  • 9th – 12th grade: You Matter, Called to Protect and Tricked: Inside the World of Teen Sex Trafficking.

The diocese chose these programs because they a) respect the psychological development of the child, b) respect the natural rights of parents to be involved in the education, c) provide tools to recognize grooming, d) promote and respect the moral teachings of the Church, and e) provide information that attempts to keep pace with current issues and emerging technologies.

Based on that decision, on a parish level, each parish trains the youth using the diocesan-mandated training programs for children K-12th grades every fall. For the grade school children, there is an emphasis on being children of God, understanding our place in creation as individuals of unimaginable worth and dignity, and protecting ourselves from those who would violate that dignity through inappropriate relationships. High school youth focus on expanding their ideas of boundaries— – not only from people in authority who might be potential predators but also from peers in dating and daily social relationships. Here in my diocese, since sexual human trafficking is a significant issue, there is an option to educate our youth on this issue too.

The youth have been very receptive, and the discussions are spirited; many times their eyes are opened to what is really going on around them. What has helped the most is that there are multiple programs, so the youth do not need to see or hear the same material every year. Variety assists in keeping their attention and expanding the tools available to them. Unfortunately, we deal with at least one report of familial abuse a year during the presentations. Fortunately, we are able to connect them with those who can assist in the healing process after we communicate with the local authorities.

My biggest challenge as a deacon is helping parents understand that their kids need to participate even though they believe their child to be safe from abuse. I certainly hope they are correct, but the statistics are a reality and therefore, I must share this sad truth with parents and encourage them to give their child the awareness and tools to participate in their own safety.

We are making progress. Parish staffs carry much of the burden. Those responsible for overseeing training tend to have this as an add-on responsibility to their job, or they are volunteers. But hope remains. Parishes are committed and thus offer our youth a “future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11). There is always room for improvement, and we must stay ever vigilant. Through education and a listening ear and heart, parishes, I believe, may offer a healing voice.

Deacon Silva earned his BS from the Franciscan University of Steubenville and completed his diaconal studies through Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College. He is currently the Director for Child Protection and Safety for the Catholic Diocese of Arlington and is assigned to St. Leo the Great parish in Fairfax, VA.

[1] From The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, Essential Norms, and Statement of Episcopal Commitment which may be found with annual reports about the implementation of such here.

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