Diocese of Steubenville Talks Child Protection

ST. CLAIRSVILLE — Appropriate boundaries and accountability were the watchwords during Thursday’s meeting of the Child Protection workshop of the Catholic Diocese of Steubenville.

The board met at Marian Hall below St. Mary’s Church, where more than 40 pastors and parochial principals from eastern Ohio were present for an annual review and to hear an update of the diocese’ Child Protection Decree, the policy governing the interactions of all clerics, regular volunteers and employees who work with children.

The meeting included a review of the decree, which includes training to recognize signs of abuse.

It also outlines the policy of reporting incidents and cooperating with the authorities in the event of an accusation. But the presentation also included an update to the diocese’s social media policy and an announcement from Bishop Jeffrey Monforton of new accountability policies at the highest level.

Vicar General James Dunfee said the attendant clergy and educators will train others in their schools with the beginning the school year.

Deacon Paul Ward, Director of Christian Formation in Schools for the diocese, expounded on the new social media policy, saying the prior policy included a blanket prohibition on contacting children through the use of cellular phones and online communication. That proved impractical in days of ubiquitous social media and in situations such as a field trip, where a student might become separated from an adult.

However, Ward said the social media policy calls for the written consent of parents or guardians before communicating by email or phone. In the event it is necessary to text a student, the parents or guardians also will receive a copy of the text. Communication with a child by personal email remains prohibited, along with online chatting, friending or following. The decree also recommends adults working with children to set their social media pages to private.

In addition, Monforton announced a policy of high-level accountability for the church to maintain its mission and deserve its trust in the face of abuse.

“At the end of the day, we are sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Gospel, and we cannot allow anything to get in our way,” he said. “There’s accountability when it comes to leadership, most certainly when it comes to the matter of investigation.”

Monforton said he supports Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo’s criticisms of the church.

“As the bishop of the Diocese of Steubenville, I can most certainly set precedent,” he said. “I can’t change canon law, but I can certainly change local law,” he said. “When it comes to a bishop being accused…what we will initiate is that it will go to the review board, but there will be those who will recuse themselves from that investigation. That will be any staff member of the chancery and all clergy, so that we can provide as best we can an objective review of the situation.”

He said this will cover individuals subordinate to the diocese bishop.

“No one is above the law,” Monforton said. “Especially in the midst of the storm we have here in the Catholic Church, what we need at the end of the day is truth and justice.

The bishop said he hopes to see the issue further addressed at the national and international levels.

“The darkness that we’re experiencing right now because of the reprehensible actions of many church officials as well as their superiors, namely bishops, if that can’t provide us motivation to review how we conduct ourselves, I don’t know what can,” he said before the meeting. “The credibility of the church has been most certainly injured with the recent news reports these last few weeks.”

Belmont County Common Pleas Judge Frank Fregiato, who also serves as chairman of the child protection board, said the decree has been in effect since the early 2000s and has proven valuable both in the primary goal of protecting children as well as protecting adults from unfounded allegations. It is subject to review every five years, with the last update in 2014.

“The decree has been extremely successful,” Fregiato said. “Any allegation of any type of abuse that you hear has occurred years and years and years ago…We have worked on boundaries. We have worked on various restrictions.”

During the question and answer period, he stressed the need to take every allegation seriously and cooperate with authorities.

“The atmosphere is that we’re accused of covering things up, so we’ve got to go the extra mile and do the exact opposite,” Fregiato said.

“We’ve had this decree in place for quite awhile and it has served us well,” Dunfee said. “We’re extremely aware of what’s going on in the national scene, and we’re doing our best to protect children…The boundaries have to be such that they’re considered absolutely safe for children.”

Timothy McGuire, former teacher and principal at Catholic Central High School in Steubenville and St. Johns in Bellaire, current pastor of St. Frances Cabrini Parish in Colerain, said he believed the new social media policy would be practical and effective in setting appropriate boundaries.

“I thought that the policy on social media that was put in place originally was untenable,” he said. “Basically, it was just an outright prohibition of any sort of social media. Even then (10 years ago), this was a common way of communication…It’s like somebody in 1930 outlawing the telephone. I thought it was very unrealistic. I’m relieved to hear that this has been changed.

“Social media can be used very effectively,” McGuire said. “Sometimes it’s the best way to communicate, and sometimes it’s the only way. The new policy is more sensible and realistic.”

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