Published March 10, 2017
SAVANNAH—More than 100 representatives of diocesan offices for the Protection of Children and Young People from across the country attended the Child and Youth Protection Catholic Leadership Conference in Savannah Feb. 26 to 28.
Dioceses established the offices following the landmark 2002 Dallas Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People established by U.S. bishops.
The Dallas Charter acknowledged the scope of the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. American bishops accepted the document that established priorities and procedures to aid victims of clergy sex abuse and to protect children and young people in the future.
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, who was the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops when the Dallas Charter was instituted, spoke at the Savannah conference. He acknowledged the suffering of victims and their families by the actions of Catholic clergy. He said the efforts to protect the vulnerable remain a ministry of the church.
“Have we solved the issue? Absolutely not. But do we have a procedure that is credible and hopefully effective in caring for people that have been harmed—I believe we do,” he said.
In the years since the charter, the trained leaders at this conference continue to serve people in need of help, he said.
“Those gathered here represent the wisdom of that decision to respond appropriately to an issue that had not received an appropriate response in the past,” Archbishop Gregory said.
In a homily to the group when he celebrated Mass, Archbishop Gregory said when church leaders “fail to protect and to care for any of us, it is a frightening and disheartening experience.”
The church is “a more loving, caring and faithful” place because of the professionals at the conference and “our children are safer because they are on duty helping the Church love like the mother that she is for us all.”
Represented at the conference were 99 dioceses and three eparchies. Sponsorships allowed the conference to bring first-time attendees to the event, paying the travel and hotel fees. The scholarship recipients came from Alaska, Iowa and Arizona.
Perla Freed, director of Safe Environment for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, said the opportunity to connect with professionals made the conference unique.
It was a reminder “we are not alone in our ministry” to help victims and prevent further abuse, she said.
The record attendance and drawing together national representation and speakers created a unique opportunity, she said.
Barbara D. King, director of communications for the Diocese of Savannah, said many people aren’t aware of how the church has implemented practices and procedures to create safe environments.
“The problem of child sexual abuse has not been solved, but the procedures in place now are moving in the right direction,” she said.
King said it was emotionally moving to hear at the conference from Christopher Gavagan, a documentary filmmaker, who was abused by his hockey coach.
“No matter how many times you hear a victim talk about how as a 13-year old he was able to keep the abuse to himself so that no one suspected, you are startled into how much vigilance it takes to protect the vulnerable,” she said.
In his homily for the opening Mass of the conference, Archbishop Gregory said, “It’s always difficult to trust once we have been betrayed or disappointed. Yet each one of us knows what it means to want to trust, to restore confidence in another person, and to reestablish an important relationship.”
He said, “Many of the people who serve the Church in accomplishing these goals are visiting Savannah this week to share their successes and their challenges. We pray in gratitude for their dedication and professional devotion.”
Andrew Nelson of The Georgia Bulletin and Michael Johnson of The Southern Cross, Diocese of Savannah, contributed to this story. For information about the Archdiocese of Atlanta’s Office of Child and Youth Protection, visit the website at https://archatl.com/offices/child-and-youth-protection.