Children at Bay

This is the second of two articles examining how the child sex abuse scandal is affecting youth work in the Catholic Church.

Clarksville, Md.—An upset teenager recently walked in to youth minister Patrick Sprankle’s office and inadvertently created a dilemma: She said, “Pat, can I talk to you?” and closed the door.

That wouldn’t have been so troublesome when Sprankle began his youth work career 18 years ago. But in the wake of the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal, many youth workers in Catholic-affiliated agencies purposely avoid being alone with the kids they serve.

Sprankle had already removed the blinds from his window so that staffers in an adjacent office can look in on him here at St. Louis Church, which sits across from a strip mall in this semi-rural town west of Baltimore. “I do not want to be in there with a kid unless I can be seen,” says Sprankle. And when the girl closed the door and sat down, Sprankle found a reason to gradually walk around the office and subtly open it.

“Those kinds of things have to be done nowadays,” he says.

Catholic youth agencies are doing many new things these days: conducting more criminal background checks on employees and volunteers, mandating training sessions where people discuss sex abuse by priests and youth workers, scraping for money to handle those procedures and imposing new limits on their youth workers’ relationships with kids.

That last change has left many of the youth workers struggling with how to maintain the kind of relationships that are at the heart of good youth development work, while limiting or even stopping age-old youth work practices like hugging, private get-togethers and friendship. Ken Currie, who takes teens from St. Louis Church on Habitat for Humanity trips to other states each year, worries about “the cost” of putting up physical and emotional barriers between himself and the youth.

“I can’t be a close friend,” says Currie, who counts a childhood friendship with a youth minister as one of the most valuable relationships of his life. “That’s gone.”

Such costs are partly why the abuse prevention policies of most youth organizations stop short of the mandates that the church is imposing on its youth workers. While the church has been forced to act aggressively – because of public anger over the scandal, the cost of lawsuits and the demands of insurance companies – other organizations might be wise to watch how it implements these changes.

After all, while the scandal primarily involves priests, most of the youth workers in the church are not ordained; they are coaches, youth ministers, teachers, mentors and chaperones. And a survey in the mid-1990s in Church Law and Tax Report found that most sex abuse in church organizations is committed by nonordained volunteers and staff, although cases involving clergy get more media attention.

One of the most notorious Catholic Church cases is that of Christopher Reardon of Middleton, Mass. – a youth minister, YMCA camp counselor and Boy Scout volunteer who in 2001 was sentenced to 40 years in prison. The past few years have seen sex abuse convictions of youth workers in myriad other religious institutions, including the First Assembly of God Church in Springfield, Tenn.; the National Conference of Synagogue Youth in New York; the Great Hills Baptist Church in Augustine, Texas; and the United Methodist Church of Whitefish Bay, Wis.

The scandal has “caused a lot of us to step back and say, ‘Are we doing everything we should be doing?’ ” says Robert McCarty Jr., executive director of the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry, a Washington-based support and advocacy group whose members includes dozens of dioceses. “It’s really hit people very hard.”

A Matter of Survival

To see how a crisis can change the mind-set of a youth agency’s work force, consider the ready willingness of about 70 volunteers – including coaches, youth ministers and parents who volunteer at Catholic schools – to attend a two-hour lesson about sex abuse one night last month at St. Joseph’s Church in suburban Fullerton, Md.

Mike Bandell, who has coached in the Catholic Youth Organization for 10 years, admits that if coaches had been told to attend such a session two years ago, “you would have asked why.” But he echoed the views of others when he said that because of the scandal, he’s more aware of sex abuse in youth organizations and understands why the church won’t let him coach unless he goes through the child protection training.

Scenes like that are occurring around the country, as the church, which claims 65 million members in the United States, steps firmly onto ground where most national youth-serving organizations have only tip-toed: imposing significant new abuse prevention and reporting requirements on front-line youth workers and monitoring their compliance.

The church has been typical of nationwide youth-serving organizations in that many of its local agencies – the dioceses, parishes and churches – had in place some staff screening, training and codes of conduct to combat abuse, but the procedures and their enforcement varied widely and depended largely on the adamancy of a local leader. Even when groups such as the Boy Scouts of America have introduced abuse prevention programs with screening and training, they’ve made little of it mandatory on the local level, for fear of overburdening or even losing staff and volunteers.

Among churches, some Protestant denominations, such as the Episcopal Church, have aggressively dealt with abuse (largely in response to a $1.2 million lawsuit award in 1991). The Central Conference of American Rabbis issued significant new policies in 1998, while the Southern Baptist Convention has traditionally left abuse rules largely up to local churches.

The “leave it to the locals” practice was abandoned by the Catholic Church last year when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) appointed a 13-member panel of lay people to help craft nationwide child protection guidelines for all 195 dioceses in the United States and oversee their implementation. A few years ago, many church youth workers would have chafed; today, their tolerance for such mandates has increased considerably, as they worry about the credibility of their institution and the survival of their programs.

“We would like to stay in business,” says Pasquale Perillo, executive director of youth ministry for the Archdiocese of San Antonio, Texas. “Some dioceses are looking at bankruptcy because of [sex abuse] settlements.”

Abuse lawsuits against the Archdiocese of Boston could cost it more than $100 million, according to The Boston Globe. The Diocese of Manchester, N.H., announced last month that it will close its youth retreat house because of financial problems related to the abuse scandal.

It’s no wonder that without proof that youth workers have gone through background checks and training, “insurance companies don’t want to write you a policy to cover damages,” says Mark Pacione, director of youth and young adult ministry for the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

So anxious are local church leaders to show that they’re taking action that they’ve spent considerable time and money to institute new background checks and training programs while waiting for the USCCB panel to issue requirements.

“It’s going to put a drain in the dioceses, and it certainly is putting more of a drain in our parishes and schools,” Perillo says. “It’s very time-consuming.”

Not for everyone. Because Catholic Charities agencies must adhere to requirements in their government contracts to provide social services, they have long had the kind of policies being implemented by the USCCB, says Ruth Dalessandri, Catholic Charities’ vice president for social services. And agencies like Catholic Big Sisters in New York already follow stringent screening and training requirements typical of such programs. As a result of the scandal, says Catholic Big Sisters Executive Director Emily Forhman, “We have changed nothing.”

‘We’re Not Buddies’

Volunteer mentor Liz McNeece is on the road toward violating church rules about conduct with children.

She’s mentoring two teenage girls from St. Louis Church, one of whom wants to go with her for pizza after a sporting event. McNeece plans to drive the girl to the pizza place.

Alone? Sitting across a table, volunteer Ken Currie adamantly says he’d never consider being alone in a car with a youth he’s mentoring, not even for a three-block drive. Because the abuse scandal is about behavior by men, Currie sees far more risk for himself in such a situation than McNeece does for herself.

“I would love to feel comfortable taking them for pizza,” Currie says of the many kids he works with at the church. “How do I get them out for pizza if I can’t drive them in a car?”

They look at Sprankle, head of the church’s Office of Youth Ministry and Adolescent Catechesis. He reluctantly tells McNeece that she shouldn’t drive alone with the girl.

McNeece doesn’t give up. “If the parents know you’re driving them, is that OK?”


This is the kind of minefield that some youth workers at Catholic agencies are negotiating as they figure out the new rules of engagement for their relationships with youth. Those rules are not only to protect kids. “You don’t want to put yourself and the kid in any position of having anything happen, an accusation made,” says Anthony Maione, director of youth ministry for the Diocese of Orlando, Fla. “Right now, the youth ministers are more frightened than any kid ever would be.”

Some of the guidelines set by dioceses and youth ministry offices are routine among youth groups, such as having at least two adults present at all times with youths. And “you don’t invite a kid alone into your own house,” Maione says – which has long been a common practice for some youth ministers.

Many youth groups have adopted such guidelines over the past 20 years. The Boys & Girls Clubs of America, for instance, says, “No staff member may be alone with a child in a room with closed doors.”

From there, however, it gets tricky.

What if a child wants to talk to a youth worker alone somewhere about a personal matter? Some youth ministry directors say to avoid that at all cost.

Sprankle recalls getting a call recently from a teenage boy “who was really upset. … I said, ‘OK, can you get to the mall? We’ll take a walk around.’ I don’t think anything was compromised by us meeting in public. Maybe the person wasn’t able to cry … but we were able to get pretty deep.”

In Florida, Maione is not willing to say never be alone with a youth in a car or office. “The development of relationships is important” to good youth work, he says, and sometimes that means one-on-one time.

Does it mean hugging? That’s an increasingly delicate question for many youth agencies. Consider the careful advice of Barbara Taylor, senior consultant for program development at the YMCA of the USA, who says “people need to be touched and it’s not a bad thing,” then lists several cautions, such as: “It should be orchestrated. … Side hugs are better than frontal hugs. … A touch on the hand or shoulder can equally be used to say, ‘I care, I hear, I’m with you.’ ”

Some youth workers in Catholic-affiliated agencies say it’s OK to hug kids in public, while others no longer feel comfortable even with that. The answer depends on the relationship between the adult and youth, who else is around, who initiates the hug, and the age and gender of the child.

“Where second-graders will love to hug you, that’s not appropriate with teenagers,” says Sarelle McCoard, coordinator of youth ministry for four parishes in the Diocese of Oakland, Calif.

But many teenagers do want friendships with youth workers, which is where the real danger lies.

When a child is molested by an unrelated adult, the perpetrator is typically a friend who gradually seduces the youth through an emotional bond. Most nonfamily child molesters connect with kids incredibly well, which is why a common quip among abuse investigators in the FBI is, “Beware the teacher of the year.” The same cynicism could be applied to youth workers.

Thus a growing number of churches and dioceses are cautioning their youth ministers, tutors, mentors and coaches not to become “friends” with youth. “We’re not buddies,” Sprankle says.

Yet helping youths form close, healthy relationships with responsible adults is the very heart of youth development. While McNeece at St. Louis Church says, “I consider myself more of a mentor than a friend,” the line between the two easily blurs – and people like Currie, sitting right across the table from her, worry about “the cost” of keeping their distance from kids in the interest of protecting them.

“In my mind, I probably push off a little more” from the youths, says Currie, who has worked with youth for the church for seven years. And he finds himself working with kids more now through group events, such as the Habitat excursions.

For example: Currie recently worked with a youth who was helping to revamp part of the St. Louis Church website. “A year ago, I would have said, ‘Let’s get together for a couple of hours, probably over at my house. Come over for lunch. We’ll hammer it out.”

Instead, Currie worked with the youth primarily through the Internet and did not meet with him alone.

Maybe that’s good. Church officials say it will take time to develop complete answers, and much will depend on the common sense of the youth worker.

“We want to err on the side of being more careful,” Cardinal Theodore McCarrick said last month while unveiling new child protection policies for the Archdiocese of Washington. “But we don’t want people to stop taking care of children.”


Pat Sprankle, Director
Office of Youth Ministry and
Adolescent Catechesis
St. Louis Church
12500 Clarksville Pike, Clarksville, MD 21029
(410) 531-6040

Mark Pacione, Director
Division of Youth and Young Adult Ministry
Archdiocese of Baltimore
320 Cathedral St., Baltimore, MD 21201
(410) 547-5372

Kathleen McChesney, Executive Director
Office of Child and Youth Protection
United States Conference of
Catholic Bishops
3211 Fourth St. NE
Washington, DC 20017
(202) 541-3000

Safe Environment Program Guidelines
Model Abuse Prevention Programs

Screening and Training: Devils in the Details

Should a volunteer who periodically helps someone coach a youth soccer team be required to go through the same screening and sex abuse prevention training as a youth agency employee? What about the parent who chaperones one dance?

What kind of background check is good enough?

What does abuse prevention training have to include?

And by the way, who’s paying for all of this?

Those are among the chief questions that youth workers and program managers at Catholic-affiliated agencies are asking as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) mandates that dioceses implement “safe environment” programs. The responses of the dioceses and their churches vary around the country, and may be instructive for other youth agencies as well.

Church youth group leaders wonder if the requirements cover their clerical workers, custodians and every teenager who rises through a group to become a leader with a “youth minister” title. In Cleveland, Dobie Moser, executive director of youth ministry and the Catholic Youth Organization for the diocese, says, “If I put something out that says every youth minister must be trained by the standards of the Catholic Bishops Conference, I’ve just fired half the kids.”


The problem at church youth groups in the past, says longtime Catholic youth worker and writer Amy Welborn, is a familiar one for many youth-serving agencies: “If a guy seemed normal, he was in.” She writes from experience. When she was director of religious education at a parish, a male volunteer “seduced a young high school kid in the group.”

And just like many other agencies, church groups have gradually realized that when it comes to accepting volunteers and employees, “we’ve known him for years” and “the kids love her” are not safe screening methods. Many church agencies have instituted more thorough background checks in recent years, and the USCCB guidelines have compelled most to review and revise their process.

One of the major challenges is how specific a national office (in this case, the USCCB’s Office of Child and Youth Protection) should be in dictating who is screened and how. The guiding document, the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, says dioceses must “evaluate the background of all diocesan … and parish personnel who have regular contact with minors,” calling on them to use “the resources of law enforcement.”

What does “regular contact with minors” mean? The youth protection office doesn’t plan to define it specifically, says Executive Director Kathleen McChesney. It also won’t dictate exactly what the background checks must include for every youth worker. McChesney says the dioceses and parishes are best able to draw those distinctions for their own programs, although her office will guide those who ask for help on specific positions.

Here is how some dioceses and churches are handling screening:

• At St. Louis Church in Clarksville, Md., youth minister Pat Sprankle hired a consultant to check at least three references for every volunteer. The Archdiocese of Baltimore, which covers Clarksville, is now requiring criminal background checks on all volunteers (based on Social Security numbers), while employees must be fingerprinted.

• In Cleveland, Moser says, “if you want to coach at a parish CYO, you must sign this document that says you are open to being fingerprinted at any time” for a background check.

• The Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., will establish “provisional” status for people who, for instance, “come in three times over the course of a summer” to work with youth, says Shay Bilchik, CEO of the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA) and chairman of the archdiocese’s child protection advisory board. They could not work with kids alone.

• In Alameda, Calif., youth minister coordinator Sarelle McCoard sends a small batch of forms on her volunteers once or twice a year to a state agency that runs them through California’s “Megan’s Law” list of convicted sex offenders. “They call within a few weeks to tell you the results,” she says.

“We are supposed to do this even if they just volunteer one time,” McCoard says. “Whether or not every youth minister does that, I can’t say.”

Who pays? That depends on where you are.

McCoard covers the small fee ($4 each) from her own budget; she has only about 25 background checks a year for the four parishes she covers. The Archdiocese of Baltimore, which estimates that it has 4,000 volunteers in youth ministry, has hired a company to conduct background checks for some parishes. At some churches in the Diocese of Orlando, Fla., coaches pay the $10 to $15 for their own statewide criminal background checks. But the diocese plans to expand to nationwide checks, which may double the cost, says Youth Ministry Director Anthony Maione. “That might create an issue for some people,” he says.


If an organization is going to mandate that staff and volunteers be trained about child sex abuse, one of the immediate questions is: Who will lead the training and how will they know what to do?

For many church groups, the key to making that training easy for many people to carry out is creating a videotape.

Among major youth groups, the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) pioneered the use of videos for sex abuse prevention training in the late 1980s, and the Episcopal Church followed in the early 1990s. The formula: a tape of experts talking about abuse and agency leaders talking about organization policy; places designated for a “facilitator” to stop the tape and take questions or organize discussions; a written curriculum for the facilitator to follow, and printed materials for participants to take with them.

That’s pretty much the formula followed by dioceses that are making their own tapes. (The Boys & Girls Clubs of America is testing a CD-ROM that focuses on staff screening, training and supervision for child safety.) In the Archdiocese of Baltimore, Mark Pacione, director of the archdiocese’s division of youth and young adult ministry, spent two frantic weeks with other staffers last summer producing the 40-minute video, which features interviews with child abuse experts, abuse victims and clergy (including Cardinal William Keeler of the Archdiocese of Baltimore). Pacione says the video cost $30,000 to produce.

What’s especially noteworthy is the frankness with which the tape discusses sexual abuse by clergy. Before starting the tape at a training in St. Joseph’s Church in Fullerton, Md., youth minister Dawn Woods – who was trained as a facilitator for this task by watching someone else do it a week earlier – leads the group in a prayer for “those who have been victimized by abusers.”

Couldn’t the USCCB produce one video for everyone to use? Pacione in Baltimore and Maione in Orlando say it’s better for each diocese to produce a tape that can use its own local leaders to explain their own local procedures.

For instance, the training programs discuss the state laws on who must report suspected sexual abuse to government authorities. (The Baltimore tape urges every adult to report suspected abuse in all cases – a big shift from the routine practice in some dioceses of keeping allegations within the institution.)

As for which youth workers must go through the training, once again, the answer depends on where you are. The USCCB’s charter on child protection mandates training for “youth, parents, ministers, educators and others.” Many churches and dioceses are trying to figure out whom to mandate training for, such as administrative employees, custodians in schools and parents who occasionally pitch in.

“One person’s role is to teach religious education twice a month on a Sunday night. What does their training need to be?” asks Moser, the youth ministry director for the Diocese of Cleveland.

“Even the youth minister role is not a consistently defined job description that is carried out in a particular way” in each of the archdiocese’s 240 parishes. “In some cases we have full-time, trained professionals. In other cases you have part-time volunteers.”

The Archdiocese of Baltimore requires training for everyone who volunteers even once – “even if you go on one field trip,” says a mother who attended the training with Woods at St. Joseph’s.

Whatever the decision of each diocese, CWLA’s Bilchik says the strategy is the same: Use a combination of measures – screening and training for employees and volunteers, and increased awareness among staff, parents and youth – to create an atmosphere that curtails opportunities for abuse and increases the chances that abuse will be discovered quickly.


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