By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published September 6, 2018 | En Español
SMYRNA—Perla Freed, director of the Office of Safe Environment for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, is a graduate of the most recent Safeguarding of Minors diploma program at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, Italy.
Eighteen students from 13 different countries took the five-month diploma course, beginning last October and culminating in February.
Freed was one of only three lay people taking the course. Most of the students were priests and nuns.
Jesuit priest Father Hans Zollner directs the University’s Centre for Child Protection and led many of the courses during the program.
“I really enjoyed our classes with him,” said Freed about Father Zollner’s insight.
“The teachers were amazing and from all over the world.”
The diploma semester program equips current and future safeguarding officers with the competencies and skills to apply guidelines and policies in their respective cultures. Experts from different fields lead the program. The students’ professional and personal development is fostered through networking with others experienced in the field.
In the beginning days of the program, the classes focused on what to establish for safeguarding if no practices are currently in place.
Some of the students’ ministries are in Africa, India, the Middle East, and other places where “their resources are limited and people want to think that this is not happening” said Freed about abuse within the church.
It was a “major news flash for me, just representing the Archdiocese of Atlanta in a first world country with a lot of resources,” she added. “There needs to be a change in culture in so many places just being able to speak about this openly.”
Some countries just beginning their programs
Some of her fellow classmates included a priest and nun from Madagascar and two nuns from Tanzania already back home and beginning to educate the children they serve where no previous abuse awareness programs existed.
“And to make it a movement and a ministry like it’s become here (in Atlanta) is going to be an uphill battle for a lot of my classmates, but they’re already doing the work,” said Freed. “They see a need for the kids to know.”
In many countries across the globe there are no specific laws against child abuse.
“Even in Asia too, it’s something people don’t speak about,” said Freed, who has worked in her position for five years. “This all comes down to child rights.”
The candidates for the diploma program all have to speak English to take the classes, as well as meet other requirements.
Freed, who spent half of her life in Honduras and half in the United States, found the cultural issues surrounding child protection interesting.
“For me the cultural aspect of it was just huge,” she said.
She heard many positives in Rome about the work of the church in the U.S. to protect minors.
With the news of many past abuses in the U.S. church just now being brought to the public’s attention by way of a grand jury report in Pennsylvania, Freed believes there’s more on the horizon.
“Yes, we’re going to get more and more reports. We’re going to hear more and more horror stories,” she said about past claims. “And I think that needs to come out. It’s the only way. You have to make it as real as possible so people don’t forget about it.”
The programs of the Centre for Child Protection follow a victims-first approach and integrate methods and frameworks from various disciplines including psychology, theology, social sciences and canon law.
Some of the professors were on-site in Rome, while others led classes by media conferencing.
“It was a very impressive lineup of professors from all over the world,” said Freed.
Emphasis on priest preparation
The diploma course provided a lot of time to discuss the various topics with classmates and Freed has stayed in touch with two of them, providing them with guidance and resources.
A new topic for her was how theology and canon law relate to child protection.
One subject she found vital was formation for the priesthood, said Freed.
She said Father Zollner emphasized “how important it is for seminaries to create stronger candidates and make sure that they’re fit and they stay fit emotionally and they have that ability to mature within seminary.”
It’s about addressing the human formation of seminarians, teaching them where to get help when they have problems.
“They’re overly trained, super-intelligent people” when it comes to theology, said Freed of seminarians. But training on self-care can be lacking, she noted.
One question posed was whether prospective priests are ready for the pressures of the priesthood.
“I could be very depressed about the news and what is to come,” she said. “We’re looking at the issue with the lenses of today, but we’re not comparing that with the information that was available 40 years ago.”
What keeps Freed going in the safe environment ministry is the new information and training on the topic never available before.
After the diploma course, Freed met with Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory to talk about what is already being accomplished in the archdiocese and areas for possible improvement.
One of Freed’s classmates was a Marist priest sent to Rome by his provincial. At first the priest was uncomfortable even talking about the subject of sexual abuse, but he began making the effort and asking Freed for information on the awareness programs provided in Atlanta.
“It’s a change of attitude. That one person can make a difference,” she said.
The clergy and nuns seemed surprised that lay people typically lead the child protection ministries in U.S. dioceses.
“We’re light years ahead when it comes to child protection in the way we operate the Catholic church here in America,” said Freed.
She wants to make it clear that the stories being made public from Pennsylvania and elsewhere are primarily from pre-2002, when the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People was implemented.
The stories are horrible and bring shame to her and many fellow Catholics, she admitted. However, only light can help with the darkness, said Freed.
“That is all we can do is just improve and make sure we are doing everything in our power to make sure this doesn’t happen on our watch,” she said.