By Becky Aubut
NEW BEDFORD, Mass. — Parishes and schools will soon be opening up their doors to welcome in students coming off summer break and for Debora Berg, coordinator of the Office for Child Protection of the Diocese of Fall River, this time of year signals an uptick in registrations for the Safe Environment program. Held every Tuesday night, the free program helps educate directors of Religious Education and volunteers on abuse prevention and how to report abuse, as well as offering a series of videos to be used to educate students.
“It is a sensitive topic,” said Berg, “and what’s interesting is, I get feedback from the directors of Religious Education that there is some pushback from the parents asking, ‘Why is the Church teaching this?’ It’s a struggle for everybody; it takes away time from the basic Faith Formation to do Safe Environment. The answer, especially on this side of the country, should be pretty obvious: because we never want children to be at risk, like they were a long time ago, and the Church is taking significant steps to fix that.
“I think the biggest issue that people struggle with is that [they think] Safe Environment is sex ed. 101; there is nothing about it that is sex education. What we’re teaching children from first grade up is that your body is precious; it’s a gift from God, and it belongs to you. You have the right to say no if someone touches you or does something to you in a way you don’t like, and that’s important for kids to know nowadays.”
Berg has 28 years of child welfare experience and is constantly reading up on the latest techniques to help make the Safe Environment program a wealth of knowledge for those taking part in getting certified. This year the Abuse Prevention Training Manual and diocesan Code of Conduct have been updated, helping make the guidelines more user-friendly; any diocesan employee and all volunteers who may have unmonitored access to children must get certified through the Safe Environment program.
Berg created a training program for DREs to get them comfortable talking to children about abuse, “but a lot of people said if you could just put in a video, that would be helpful,” said Berg, “so a couple of years ago I sourced a lot of videos with Claire McManus from the Faith Formation Office, reviewed them all and picked what we thought was right.”
The series of age-appropriate videos are shown every year during Faith Formation classes. Starting in the first grade and second grade, the “Play it Safe” video features puppets who are contestants on a game show, and uses a repetition format to help youngsters remember four important points of the video: don’t go anywhere alone; don’t keep secrets; don’t go with strangers; and if someone you trust tells you a secret, tell another person you trust.
Each grade has its own video: the ninth-grade video is not graphic, but shows a coach becoming too personal with his player and teaches students to recognize grooming techniques that predators use to ingratiate themselves with his or her victim.
“There are some videos that make people uncomfortable,” said Berg, “and a few that people don’t want to use because [they feel] they’re more explicit, but these are issues kids in our parishes are facing and they need to know.”
The videos act as a launching pad for discussions among the students, and while parents can opt-out of having their children participate, Berg said, “I would rather these kids get in an uncomfortable feeling in a safe classroom being led by a trained facilitator” than be caught in an uncomfortable experience outside of the classroom with no advice on how to handle it.
“Whatever it takes so that kids can get this. I would rather have kids process this scary stuff in a safe environment,” said Berg, adding why wait for kids to find out, and experience it for themselves? It’s better to give them the tools to recognize grooming, to recognize when someone is touching you and that it’s OK to say something.
The videos and discussions are designed to be “very low-key,” said Berg. “Our goal is never to traumatize a child, it’s to inform. It’s to generate discussion in a safe environment for them to process and learn, and then to recognize so if, at any age, they’re in a situation that’s suddenly unsafe, they recognize it.”
Parents may feel that they would recognize if their child was being abused, but perpetrators go to great lengths to threaten their victims into keeping quiet.
“A story I always tell that shocks people is there was a little girl who was sexually abused by her stepfather, and I found out when I interviewed her — she was almost four and starting to talk — it took her probably 40 minutes of sobbing, stopping and collecting herself to get through her story,” said Berg. “She had not only been horribly sexually violated, but the perpetrator had taken her baby kitten and broke its neck right in front of her and said, ‘If you tell anyone, I’ll do this to you, your mom and your sister.’”
Then there’s the perpetrator who threatened to kill himself if his victim told anyone, telling his victim it would be their fault if he did it; “And he did kill himself after I interviewed her and shared with the police what had happened,” said Berg, adding that the mother of the girl alerted him that the police were coming. “He went out the next morning and took his own life somewhere where this girl could see the body on her way to school to try and impact her.”
These two examples may sound extreme but Berg had traveled extensively throughout the diocese to present the Safe Environment program, and has been approached by professionals after she has spoken, who shared their own stories of perpetrators doing horribly threatening things to keep victims silent.
There have been times when a child will watch the Safe Environment video, and disclose something to the DRE, said Berg, and there is a guide given to those running the lessons to help them to know how to respond. It shows that the program is working, said Berg.
Sometimes the program works too well, especially with younger kids, who are taught that even if a trusted adult tells you a secret, it’s OK to tell another trusted adult. Berg jokingly warns parents that their children may openly state that dad bought mom a necklace for her birthday, or tell other siblings they found out they’re going to Disney Land, but in the long run that’s a good thing: “I’d rather kids ruin a surprise than keep a horrible secret,” said Berg. “Eventually they’ll understand [the difference] but in the meantime, be grateful that your children are talking to you.”
Parishes and schools also follow guidelines set out by Berg to keep students safe while attending classes, and Berg helps field complaints from parents who feel some of the rules are an inconvenience; for example, coming into the building to pick up your child after Faith Formation classes are done, rather than releasing the children into the parking lot to find his or her parent: “I had a parish call me near the end of last year who had a parent who was objecting having to come in and pick up their child. The poor DRE really struggled, and I said to have the parent call me and I will explain. It’s all about erring on the side of caution, and my point to the parent was [picking up the child in the building] was my instruction to the parishes. It’s the best practice; I don’t supervise them but I can tell them what is the safest practice.”
When the parent countered by saying they live in a safe community and nothing had every happened there, Berg stated, “You’re very blessed but you can’t count on that to always be the case. You can’t assume that because it’s always been that way in the past it will continue to be that way.”
It’s about educating the next generation, said Berg, so that child can recognize and be open to talking about abuse: “I’ve heard many adult survivors speak and say, ‘If only someone had told me back then that it wasn’t OK, or it was important for me to tell.’ So now our focus is on identifying a trusted adult and telling a trusted adult.”
She added, “We have to tell children what’s OK and what isn’t.”
To register for the free Safe Environment program, to read more on the diocesan Code of Conduct or to check out the comprehensive list of informative articles and resources Berg has listed on the website, go to www.cssdioc.org, look at the upper right-hand corner of the homepage, and click on “Protecting God’s Children.”