Debra Garza leads prekindergarten students on the first day of school in 2017 at St. Helen Catholic School in Pearland, Texas. CNS photo/James Ramos

The Ministry of Creating Safe Environments

How to see protection procedures as a blessing, not a chore

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Since the promulgation of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People in 2002, dioceses and eparchies in the United States have endeavored to carry out 13 of its 17 articles (the remaining four articles are implemented on the national level). The charter is divided into four sections that promote healing and reconciliation (Articles 1-3), guarantee an effective response (Articles 4-7), ensure the accountability of procedures (Articles 8-11) and protect the faithful (Articles 12-17). The latter section on protecting the faithful contains many of the pieces necessary to create and maintain a safe environment in the Church. This article will be looking at what clergy can do to ensure their parish is a place where children and young people can safely grow in their faith.


I was hospitalized December of last year. For four days I witnessed the daily rituals hospital personnel carried out in maintaining a safe environment. I witnessed consistent communication during shift changes. I saw technicians, nurses and doctors refer to charts and written documentation. My identification wristband was scanned every time I received medication or treatment. I was asked my name and birth date on several occasions throughout the day. Every individual had a role to play, and every behavior had a specific purpose to ensure safety. If something went wrong or was out of place, it would not go unnoticed.

Why is it important that ritual habits of being preoccupied with failure be carried out in providing safe environments? If clergy, church employees and volunteers are not trained to look for anomalies — those behaviors that deviate from what is normal — safety is compromised. For example, if a volunteer insists that a background check is not needed because they have been members of the parish for decades, there is now a gap in the milieu, in the system. If you make one exception for one person, others will request the same exception and the gap keeps growing. To provide another example, if a warning sign such as a boundary violation goes unchecked, it could open the door to grooming and ultimately to an overt act of abuse.

Preoccupation with failure involves situational awareness or mindfulness. Your radar is looking for errors or near misses. A near miss, if not reported, could develop into a disaster. The hospital rituals I shared earlier needed to be carried out, but not as exercises in automatic processing. Hospital personnel were keeping an eye out for irregularities. In the Church, that would mean the full awareness and presence that clergy, employees or volunteers possess when, for example, checking in on youth-group members during a youth-group meeting. It is paying attention to who is picking up the kindergartner from child care; is it the approved adult or designated individual? Any lapse may be a symptom that something is wrong with the system, something that could have severe consequences if several separate small errors happen to coincide.

I was at the movies recently and was surprised to see a notice included in the preview portion of the showing. The notice stated, “If you see something, say something!” First of all, I am watching a movie. What exactly am I supposed to be looking for? But management wanted to ensure the audience that their environment is safe. Often just speaking up about something that does not look right is the first step to maintaining a culture of safety.


Safe environment practices need to be consistently understood and applied; this includes every member of the clergy, employees and volunteers who have access to minors and vulnerable individuals. Safe environment practices and training need to be offered to young people as well. For adults, this means fulfilling safe environment training (Article 12), background checks (Article 13) and the use of codes of conduct and standards of ministerial behavior (Article 6). For young people, this means providing training, the use of codes of conduct and a plan of action to stay safe.

Read the Charter
In 2018, the U.S.
Conference of Catholic
Bishops approved a
revised Charter for the
Protection of Children
and Young People.
The full document can
be read at

Have you ever noticed construction sites that have posted “X number of days without an accident?” Often the number of days that fills that blank is substantial, usually in the hundreds. That is no accident. The construction industry commits time and resources to creating safe environments for workers. The industry relies on safety rules to guide their actions. The industry also promotes safety as a core value to its workers. If a rule is broken, or even if an accident almost occurs, workers are encouraged to report them. These mechanisms, such as reporting near misses or warning signs, prevent real accidents from occurring in the future.

In the Church, abuse is not an accident. Offenders take their time in identifying and grooming potential victims. They often break rules and exploit gaps in policies and protocols. When followed, the policies the Church has in place work in preventing abuse. When they are broken, abuse occurs. That is why it is so important to train those on the front lines, such as clergy, parish staff, volunteers and even children to recognize and report when safe environment rules are broken, or simply to “say something if they see something.” For parishes to ensure the number of days without abuse is interminable, and all system failures should be reported, documented and rectified.


Maintaining a safe environment is not a chore — it is a ministry. Jesus calls us through the Gospels to take care of the vulnerable and protect them from harm. When we each do our part to protect children, youths and the vulnerable from harm, we are bringing glory to God. While sometimes going through a safe environment training session, completing a background check or following diocesan policies and protocols might seem burdensome, the reality is it is not about us or any perceived inconvenience we might feel. It is about the children. It is about our youths. In Matthew 25:40 Jesus says, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” What we do in the name of creating and maintaining a culture of protection and healing, we do for Christ.

Safe environment is just as much a ministry as youth ministry, religious education and others. Serving within a safe environment is one way we can share our gift of self to others. Empowering children and youths who attend a youth ministry or religious education program sometimes might feel like a chore when we have such limited time with them, but it is necessary and completely worthwhile. If a child is being harmed in any way, just one lesson in safe environment potentially could save their life.

The joy of serving in the Church, particularly in serving children, youths and the vulnerable is not a right — it is a privilege. Much like with any privilege, we have to earn it. We can take joy in the fact that the steps that we go through to serve the Church help contribute to a culture of protection and healing.

DEACON BERNARD NOJADERA is executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Child and Youth Protection.

Pope Issues New Protection Laws

Pope Francis meets with Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley of Boston, president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, during a private audience at the Vatican April 4, 2019. CNS photo/Vatican Media

In late March, Pope Francis released an apostolic letter outlining new rules and procedures meant to protect minors and other vulnerable people within the legal jurisdiction of Vatican City State.

“The protection of minors and of vulnerable persons is an integral part of the evangelical message, which the Church and all her members are called to spread in the world,” he wrote in his letter, issued motu proprio (“on his own initiative”), according to a translation by the news agency Zenit. “Christ himself, in fact,
entrusted us with the care and protection of the littlest and defenseless: ‘Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me’ (Mt 18:5).”

Pope Francis wrote that he has implemented the new laws “so that in the Roman Curia and in Vatican City State” there will be, among other things: respect and awareness of the rights and needs of minors and vulnerable adults; greater vigilance, prevention and corrective action when abuse or mistreatment is
suspected or reported; clearer procedures as well as specific offices for making claims; support services and protections for alleged victims, their families and those accused; and adequate formation for and background checks of new personnel, including volunteers.

Catholic News Service contributed to this report

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