A reason for hope: The Diocese of Jackson’s commitment to our children

A reason for hope: The Diocese of Jackson’s commitment to our children

En Espanol: Una razón para la esperanza

The Diocese of Jackson has a plan and a team in place to prevent and to respond to allegations of sexual abuse against minors. The topic is a fresh wound in our Church since the release of a grand jury report out of Pennsylvania detailing a horrifying pattern of abuse and coverups in six dioceses in that state and revelations of years of abuse at the hands of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

Bishop Joseph Kopacz met with the priests, lay ecclesial ministers, permanent deacons and other pastoral leadership of the diocese in August to hear their concerns and yours. Your pastors passed along your anger, devastation, and prayers. We are grateful for all these emotions. Your anger is righteous, your devastation shows the depths of your faith and your prayers are much needed for the Church.

In response to those meetings as well as the many calls, emails and conversations chancery staff and pastors have had with you, the faithful, we want you to know what has been done, what we continue to do and what’s in store for the future. Bishop Kopacz describes this approach as having four aspects: our safe environment program, victims’ assistance, cooperation with law enforcement and transparency.

To start- an assurance of transparency: A handful of bishops across the U.S. are inviting their state Attorneys General to review their files. The Diocese of Jackson did that back in 2002. In response to both the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ pending Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, and a contemporary case being presented to the state attorney, diocesan leadership decided the best course of action was to be proactive. A member of the diocesan review board and the vicar general at that time reviewed an accounting of all known cases with staff at the attorney general’s office.

Since that time, all new credible allegations have been turned over to the district attorneys in the counties where the abuse is alleged to have happened.

The bishop has reviewed these cases in-depth in the last few weeks to make sure the diocese has done its due diligence in offering care to victims of abuse, reporting cases to law enforcement and informing local communities about cases. Bishop Kopacz will approach the current Mississippi Attorney General’s Office to offer review of all substantiated cases of the abuse of minors by clergy reported since the 2002 meeting.

Safe Environment:

Anyone who offers to volunteer at any parish, school, or institution affiliated with the Diocese of Jackson will first be asked to submit to a criminal background screening. Some 15,613 employees and volunteers have been vetted in this way since the diocese initiated criminal background screenings in 2004. If the screening is clear, the volunteer or employee will begin to receive training in how to recognize the warning signs of abuse, how to report it and how to protect the children in their care from predators.

The diocese uses a company called VIRTUS for safe environment training. It starts with a live-training session with a VIRTUS facilitator. Ongoing adult training continues every month in the form of an email with an article about the latest research or information on fostering safe environments in the Church, in the home, and in society. VIRTUS has developed both the lessons and the database management program used to show who is continuing to take their training and who is not compliant. There are about 4,600 adults currently active, including clergy, religious, and lay employees.

Moreover, children are better informed now than ever before. This year, the diocese has implemented VIRTUS’ curriculum for children in parish religious education programs as well as the Catholic schools. In these lessons, children learn about safe and healthy boundaries and what they can do if someone tries to violate them in Church-sponsored programs, and in their daily lives. During the last fiscal year, 7,602 children received an age-appropriate safe environment lesson.

Vickie Carollo, the safe environment coordinator, and Fran Lavelle, director of faith formation, will visit every parish and school during this fiscal year to audit their participation in the Protection of Children program. Carollo has performed these audits since 2003 because we know that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

The Diocese of Jackson has had a policy to respond to credible allegations of sexual abuse since 1987, long before the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released the Charter. The early document was less detailed than today’s version but delineated the commitment of the diocese on responding to abuse, removing offenders, assisting victims, and promoting safe environment. The policy was revised in 1994 when an Independent Review Board of lay Catholics was established. This is a consultative body that assesses the credibility of all allegations of sexual abuse against minors and advises the bishop accordingly.  This board remains an essential resource for Bishop Kopacz, as it was for Bishop Houck and Bishop Latino. The current one includes two psychologists, a physician and two professional business people.

Victim’s assistance:

When an allegation is made, it triggers a number of responses. First, if the victim is a child – even if the abuse is just a suspicion – the case is turned over to the Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services and then to either Carollo’s office or the vicar general’s office.

In the case of an adult who comes forward years later, he or she is offered professional counseling at no cost. A victim does not need to give his or her name to the diocese to receive this service. Valerie McClellan is the victims’ assistance coordinator for the diocese. She can offer counseling based out of Jackson. If the victim lives out of state, she can arrange for a counselor in the victim’s community. The goal is to offer a healing opportunity to the victim and his or her family.

Likewise, McClellan will gather as much information about the abuse as possible and, with the victim’s consent, turn it over to the diocese. The vicar general, through the diocesan attorney, hires a private investigator to begin to look into the case and the accused is removed from active ministry or suspended while the investigator prepares a report for the review board.

The review board meets without the bishop present and votes on what actions to recommend to the bishop.  When the allegation is judged to be credible the abuser is removed from ministry as soon as possible.

Cooperation with Law Enforcement:

If a case is deemed credible, the vicar general’s office will inform the district attorney in the county where the abuse happened. The bishop withdraws faculties from an ordained accused abuser at this time.

The vicar general’s office prepares a statement to be read at Masses or other parish gatherings in the communities where the alleged abuser has served. The statement will never name a victim, but will name the alleged perpetrator and encourage other victims to come forward. These statements are now also posted to the diocesan website.

Even if there are no active cases of abuse being investigated, each parish must regularly publish a statement encouraging victims to report abuse. A recent study indicates that it can take an average of 34 years for a victim to report abuse. This means the diocese has to constantly offer the invitation for all victims to come forward.

For some perspective, since 2002, the Diocese has received nine credible reports of abuse. In all of these cases, the abuse happened 20 or more years prior to the report. The ministers reported were either deceased or already removed from ministry.

Transparency:

Most importantly, we want you to be assured of the Diocese’s commitment to transparency as we move forward. Since a group of lay journalists in Boston in 2002 exposed a pattern of abuse and cover-ups, the church has undergone a culture shift.  In biblical language, this is metanoia which entails repentance and conversion, a change of heart, mind, and practice.

This horrible scandal prompted new social science research into the psychology of abusers and forced bishops to remove priests who were a danger to their flock.

What we now understand about abuse, it’s devastating impacts on individuals, families and whole communities is dramatically different than it was in the 20th century. Dioceses, parishes, and schools have a new paradigm for caring for those placed in their care, especially those most vulnerable to predators. Those same communities have resources for identifying abusers and protocols for removing them from ministry as quickly as possible.

That’s the good news.

The sad truth is there were predators in the Church. Piled on that is the fact that there were leaders in the church who were willing to protect their fellow clergymen rather than expose them or the Church to scandal. The Church must now face yet another reckoning.

The Diocese of Jackson has a team of people who share your anger, sorrow, concern and commitment to our Church and our children. The diocesan policy, including protocols for responding to allegations, is available on the website (link here) and in printed form by emailing Vickie Carollo at Vickie.carollo@jacksondiocese.org.

We are unflinching in our commitment to our promise to protect and pledge to heal as a serious part of our vocation. With the mind and heart of Jesus Christ we echo his words: “Let the children come to me for to such belong the Kingdom of Heaven.:”

Resources: USCCB Charter

Office for the Protection of Children

Valerie McClellan: 601-326-3728

(Bishop Joseph Kopacz, Vicar General Father Kevin Slattery, Chancellor Mary Woodward, Safe Environment Coordinator Vickie Carollo and Director of Communications Maureen Smith collaborated on this statement.)

Response to Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report

Bishop Joseph Kopacz Statement Regarding the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report of Clergy Sexual Abuse:

“The recently released Pennsylvania Grand Jury report detailing cases of sexual abuse going back to the late 1940’s in six Pennsylvania Catholic dioceses, including Pittsburgh, Greensburg, Allentown, Scranton and Erie brings to light more horrific behavior within our church. The report is a stark reminder to all to whom children and young people are entrusted, starting with me in the Diocese of Jackson, that we must redouble our efforts to create safe environments for all vulnerable children of God, younger and older.  Likewise, we must recommit ourselves to exposing past abuse and encouraging victims to come forward.  We must never tire of healing and reconciling the pain that victims and families have suffered through the behavior of church personnel, especially the ordained.  All perpetrators of sexual abuse must be removed from ministry. Because I served in the Diocese of Scranton during the relevant period and am referenced in connection with my handling of three complaints of abuse, I feel it is essential — in keeping with our commitment to transparency — that you be informed of my role in those cases.

I was the Vicar for Priests for eight years in the Diocese of Scranton from 1998 to 2006 during the time that the sexual abuse crisis exploded on the scene.  As the Vicar, it was my responsibility to respond to all allegations of sexual abuse that involved clergy, along with other diocesan officials. Tragically, during that period, I was called upon to respond far too many times to such allegations.  Of those, the report references three instances where I was tasked with responding to the complaints of parishioners.

In the first reference, the victim initially confided in me that she had been abused but stated that she wanted it to be held in confidence. I kept that confidence and made no report. Though her request to maintain the confidentiality of her report was documented in a prepared memo that was available to the Grand Jury, the Grand Jury report excludes this fact.  The report does however confirm that once she removed the restriction of confidentiality, I and other diocesan officials quickly acted to report the abuse to civil authorities and remove the offending priest from ministry.  In the second reference, which involved a deceased priest who had been removed from ministry, the victim requested counseling and I arranged for him to receive counseling. In the third reference, I questioned the offending former priest and despite his denials (and the fact that he had previously been removed from ministry), reported this additional allegation to local authorities.

Forged in the fire of the abuse crisis, the vast majority of dioceses in the United States, including the Diocese of Jackson, have worked hard during the past 16 years to be faithful to the Promise to Protect and the Pledge to Heal, the document we know as the Dallas Charter. The fostering of safe environments in our ministries is now the norm, and the steadfast support for victims of sexual abuse who struggle for healing and hope in their lives, has been an unflagging commitment.

The full document is available through the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops’ website. The Charter directs action in all the following matters:

  • Creating a safe environment for children and young people;
  • Healing and reconciliation of victims and survivors;
  • Making prompt and effective response to allegations;
  • Cooperating with civil authorities;
  • Disciplining offenders;
  • Providing for means of accountability for the future to ensure the problem continues to be effectively dealt with through the Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection and the National Review Board.

It is my great hope that anyone who has been abused by a member of the clergy or an employee or volunteer of a church come forward. Our victim’s assistance coordinator, Valerie McClelland, a licensed social worker, is available to assist in making a report. You can contact her at (601) 326-3728. Suffering has no statute of limitations.  Sexual abuse is an evil and a crime that wreaks havoc, destruction and despair, and the enemy, the Evil One, loves it, because it is shrouded in darkness, lies and shame. It unleashes the power of hell upon victims and their families and it often spreads from one generation to the next unless the cycle is broken by the light of truth, healing and reconciliation.

With my brother bishops, I offer my apology for the grave sin of sexual abuse and I pledge to continue the needed work to create and maintain a safe environment within our parishes, schools and service centers.”

Most Rev. Joseph R. Kopacz
Bishop, Diocese of Jackson

Bishop Kopacz releases statement in solidarity with ‘Dreamers’

Nov. 2, 2017

Dear Friends in Christ,
With the passing of time since September 5 and the rescission of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, DACA, those not directly affected can be lulled into sleep that this crisis has passed. All who are directly affected, either personally, or with a family member, friend, or neighbor, know differently. Unless this reality is addressed justly and comprehensively by the United States Congress in March 2018, this presidential decision will mushroom into a crisis for all affected Dreamers, as well as for all whose lives will be adversely impacted, especially family members.
As Bishop of the Diocese of Jackson, I am in solidarity with my brother Bishops throughout the United States, standing with all Dreamers for whom this nation is the only homeland you know. You have lived here for most of your lives, you were educated here, you work here, and many of you have defended our nation in the Armed Services, all of which is to say that you have dreamed here and have been building a life for yourselves while contributing to our nation’s wellbeing. The Diocese of Jackson is in solidarity with you, welcomes you, prays with you and for you, and will advocate for a just legal decision when the United Sates Congress addresses this critical issue of national integrity and identity. You are our brothers and sisters in the Lord Jesus, members of the Catholic Church and the family of God, and we will labor to uphold your dignity and rightful place in our nation.

Con el paso del tiempo desde el 5 de septiembre y la decisión de la Acción Diferida para Llegadas en la Infancia, DACA, aquellos que no se ven afectados directamente pueden ser arrullados en el sueño de que esta crisis ha pasado. Todos los que se ven directamente afectados, ya sea personalmente o con un familiar, amigo o vecino, saben de manera diferente.  A menos que esta realidad sea abordada justa y exhaustivamente por el Congreso de los Estados Unidos en marzo de 2018, esta decisión presidencial se convertirá en una crisis para todos los Soñadores afectados, así como todas sus vidas se verán negativamente afectadas, especialmente los miembros de la familia.

Como obispo de la diócesis de Jackson, me solidarizo con mis hermanos obispos en todos los Estados Unidos, junto con todos los Soñadores para quienes esta nación es la única patria que conocen. Ustedes han vivido aquí la mayor parte de sus vidas, fueron educados aquí, trabajan aquí, y muchos de ustedes han defendido a nuestra nación en los Servicios Armados, todo lo cual es para decir que han soñado aquí y han estado construyendo una vida para ustedes mismos mientras contribuyen al bienestar de nuestra nación. La diócesis de Jackson se solidariza con ustedes, les da la bienvenida, ora con ustedes y por ustedes, y defenderá una decisión legal justa cuando el Congreso de los Estados Unidos aborde este tema crítico de integridad e identidad nacional. Ustedes son nuestros hermanos y hermanas en el Señor Jesús, miembros de la Iglesia Católica y la familia de Dios, y trabajaremos para mantener su dignidad y el lugar que les corresponde en nuestra nación.

In the peace of Christ,
Bishop Joseph R. Kopacz
Bishop of the Diocese of Jackson

Download the statement as a PDF here.

Bishop Kopacz opposes Arkansas executions

To reiterate his opposition to the death penalty, Bishop Joseph Kopacz, Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Jackson, released the following statement about multiple executions scheduled in Arkansas.

I join with Bishop Anthony Taylor of the Diocese of Arkansas and other faith leaders in the region in calling for the Governor of Arkansas to halt the remaining executions scheduled for this week.

A judge has deemed one of the drugs the state uses in executions to cause a ‘substantial risk of serious harm’ so the state will not have access to it as of April 30. The governor, in an attempt to use what the state has on hand, scheduled eight executions in 10 days. One execution has already taken place and several more are set for later this week, including a double-execution set for Monday. This does not represent the pursuit of justice.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development issued a statement on these scheduled executions April 13. “The schedule of executions was not set by the demands of justice, but by the arbitrary politics of punishment. The state’s supply of a sedative is expected to expire at the end of the month, and so, in a dark irony, a safeguard that was intended to protect people is now being used as a reason to hasten their deaths,” Bishop Frank J. Dewane of the Diocese of Venice and committee chairman wrote.

As Catholics, we believe in the dignity of life in all its stages. Execution does not allow room for conversion nor does it provide healing to crime victims, their families or our communities.

Yours in Christ,
Bishop Joseph Kopacz
Bishop of the Diocese of Jackson

Diocese joins bishops in call for prayer, dialogue, end to violence

The Diocese of Jackson joins the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in a call for prayer to end all violence. We urge everyone to engage in nonviolent, but necessary dialogue to identify and address the issues facing our nation today.

July 8, 2016

WASHINGTON—Following the deadly attacks on police officers in Dallas, during a protest rally in response to the killings of two men in Louisiana and Minnesota, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops extended a call to prayer, reflection, civility and peaceful dialogue.

Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, issued the following statement July 8.
Let Us Gather at the Cross

A statement from Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville
President, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

The assassination of Dallas police officers last night was an act of unjustifiable evil. To all people of good will, let us beg for the strength to resist the hatred that blinds us to our common humanity. To my brothers and sisters in Christ, let us gather at the Cross of Jesus. Our Savior suffered at the hands of humanity’s worst impulses, but He did not lose hope in us or in His heavenly father. Love overcomes evil.

The police are not a faceless enemy. They are sons and daughters offering their lives to protect their brothers and sisters. Jesus reminds us, “no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (JN 15:13). So too, the suspects in crimes or routine traffic stops are not just a faceless threat. They are members of our family in need of assistance, protection and fairness. When compassion does not drive our response to the suffering of either, we have failed one another.

The need to place ever greater value on the life and dignity of all persons, regardless of their station in life, calls us to a moment of national reflection. In the days ahead, we will look toward additional ways of nurturing an open, honest and civil dialogue on issues of race relations, restorative justice, mental health, economic opportunity, and addressing the question of pervasive gun violence.

Let us pray for the comfort of everyone affected and that our national conversation will bear the good fruit of healing and peace.


Keywords: U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, USCCB, Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, tragedy, attacks, violence, Dallas, race relations, mental health, economic opportunity, restorative justice, gun violence