USCCB auditors visit Fall River Diocese

By Becky Aubut
Anchor Staff
beckyaubut@anchornews.org

NEW BEDFORD, Mass. — For the past 13 years, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has been implementing the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” where dioceses and eparchies open their doors to incoming auditors to show they are in compliance with, and understands how to protect the most innocent of their flock. As outlined in the charter (www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/child-and-youth-protection/charter.cfm), it is the responsibility of the Church to deal consistently and effectively with complaints of abuse, and it directs diocesan activity in creating a safe environment. 

Though the latter group of words has simplified the process into one sentence, for Debora Berg, director of the Office for Child Protection at the Catholic Social Services office in New Bedford, staying in compliance is anything but simple. She spends her time reaching out to each parish and school in the Fall River Diocese to make sure everyone is up-to-date with training and statistical information. For two years, she submits paperwork on behalf of the diocese to stay compliant, and in the third year, she welcomes auditors to personally visit multiple sites throughout the Fall River Diocese. 

Incidentally, a diocese does not have to allow auditors a visit but “we always [give permission] because it’s just an extra layer of accountability for us, to be welcome,” said Berg. “It’s a nice chance to let the auditors see what we’re doing, and let us know what they think we should be doing better. We welcome the feedback.”

Berg always accompanies the auditors “because it’s a little scary for any of the directors of Religious Education or principals who have never gone through that before; we choose different sites every time,” she said. “But as I said to one of the DREs, it isn’t about checking up on you, it’s making sure that I’m doing everything I’m supposed to do to support you and be in compliance with the charter.”

Berg has overseen site visits when auditors came in 2010 and 2013. The auditors may seem like imposing figures but are very “lovely” and willing to work with Berg and fellow lay people in the Fall River Diocese; “They let us know there’s no wrong answer here. We’re here to gather information, to look at the practices, and make recommendations on what could be done better — but also to make sure we are in compliance with the charter.”

Preparation for the incoming auditors, who personally visit every three years, begins months in advance. Paper audits done for the first two years require Berg to submit forms, but during the third year, along with the forms, the “full audit instrument” is submitted, which is a multi-page questionnaire, she said.

“We have to give statistics, say who’s responsible for each and every section of every article, their contact information; it’s a big document that we type everything into,” explained Berg. “Arlene McNamee is our executive director [of CSS] and victims assistance coordinator, and she has to report on any allegations against priests, deacons or religious.”

Victims are numbered, so anonymity is key, and no one ever sees a victim’s name. Everything is given over to McNamee, who handles all the information.

“It’s very respectful of victims,” said Berg. “Auditors have no idea; I don’t even have an idea of any victim’s name, age or even gender.”

Part of the process Berg did to prepare for this year’s audit was to attend a webinar provided by the Secretariat for Child and Youth Protection, and email all materials: “We know well in advance what kind of questions are going to be asked. They don’t change a whole lot each year, but they’re always fine-tuning.”

Each audit has been slightly different. In 2010, the auditors did 10 site visits so Berg traveled all over the Fall River Diocese. Three years ago, the auditors emailed Berg, telling her which parishes they wanted to visit. This year the auditors wanted to stay within a 30-mile radius.

Since 2013 Stonebridge Business Partners has been overseeing the compliance audit, and sent a different team each time to the Fall River Diocese; “We will never get the same auditors twice,” said Berg, “so that way they feel they get a fresh perspective on the diocese.”

Though Berg oversees a lot of information in her office, in order for the diocese to be in compliance, each parish and school needs stay on top of its own paperwork trail. With more than 100 sites within the Fall River Diocese, it’s a lot of information that needs to be reported, said Berg.

Each DRE or principal has to track all of the children in his or her Faith Formation program who are eligible for safe environment training, and how many parents opted-out of training for their child (with parents being given materials to teach at home, if they prefer); track all active volunteers and how many are in full compliance (have a training date, current CORI, and current Code of Conduct). The bishop’s office reports on priests, deacons and religious, including seminarians and international priests; and all this information is funneled to Berg’s office. 

“It’s all about being in compliance with the charter and that we don’t take any chances,” said Berg. “I even say to folks who may be going to out a parishioner who is elderly — you don’t know if a grandchild won’t stop in. It’s really just all about protecting not just the children, but the various ministries within the diocese.”

Berg also recommends that each site being visited have all the required materials out so auditors have access to them, and that the parishes and schools display the latest in child protection manuals, recent training manuals, current version of the charter, and updated child abuse and prevention policies, technology policies, training videos, and forms. 

This year the auditors visited St. Mary’s Parish in South Dartmouth; St. Anthony of Padua Parish in New Bedford; Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in New Bedford; and Espirito Santo Parish and School in Fall River.

Father Jack Oliveira, pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, was the only pastor available at the time, and “Father Jack has always been so supportive of all the work that is done. We had a lovely conversation and it was wonderful meeting,” said Berg.

Benevinda Costa-Reedy, the director of Religious Education at St. Mary’s Parish in South Dartmouth “is phenomenal. She has an excellent program and she was able to pull up stats and anything [the auditors] needed. Bene was asked about specifics, and she got right on our database and was able to pull up stats,” added Berg. 

Berg said that the auditors also try to visit a parish that is connected with a school so the auditors can interview a principal. 

“Andrew Raposo is the new principal at Espirito Santo School, and he was our first visit on October 5,” said Berg. “He was phenomenal, and he had everything in order. He’s also the DRE, so he had everything displayed, and everything went exceptionally well. He was so articulate about wanting to protect children.”

One of the best things about training and CORI checks is that the diocese picks up the tab; there is no cost to any individual, said Berg. She regularly updates pertinent information through binders distributed to every parish and school, as well as updating the Catholic Social Services website area regarding Child Protection (www.cssdioc.org and click on “Protecting God’s Children”), and adds that it helps that there is a standardized training manual used as a reference throughout the diocese: “We cover a large area, from the Cape and the Islands to Attleboro, so everybody is supposed to be doing it the same way, and we use all the tools and resources we possibly can.”

Results of audits come via letters, and past audits have always been shown the Fall River Diocese in compliance; a second letter, even if the diocese is in compliance, also offers suggestions. As of press time, Berg had not received the official letter stating the diocese was fully in compliance but based on past successes, Berg said she expected the same positive results this time around.

“These auditors are primarily accountants; it’s an accounting firm that takes on the audit work,” said Berg. “They’re used to looking at details. The gentlemen who were here this time, these guys are very experienced and efficient. They camped out wherever they could. We had them at Catholic Social Services for a couple of days, their last day they were at the conference room at the chancery. They had their laptops open and any time they weren’t interviewing somebody or gathering data, they were typing information so they worked very quickly. 

“If we haven’t passed, you get a management letter stating that you are out of compliance, but that has never happened in this diocese. We’ve always passed.”


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