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Reshaping child protection for Kansas City Catholic diocese

Friday, March 30, 2012 | 12:01 a.m. CDT
Jenifer Valenti, left, and Carrie Cooper stand outside Visitation School in Kansas City. The two women, who are mothers of elementary-school age children are now leading the child protection efforts for the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.

KANSAS CITY — Good moms know that simple instructions and clear expectations often lead to positive, vigorous outcomes.

With that in mind, consider this guidance crafted by the two mothers, Jenifer Valenti and Carrie Cooper, who now lead child protection efforts for the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph:

If you know or suspect that a child is being abused, call the police, the Missouri Child Abuse Hotline and, finally, the diocese's ombudsman.

Under the old system, muddled reporting policy and blurred responsibilities led to confused inaction and even criminal charges for the diocese and its bishop.

Valenti, the diocese's ombudsman, and Cooper, who directs the diocese's office of child and youth protection, are tasked with rebuilding the church's child-safety efforts after nearly a year of scandal.

And though both only have been on the job for less than a year, even some critics of past child protection efforts are applauding their work to bring more accountability to the process.

Denise Gilmore, who was appointed to a diocesan sexual abuse review board in 1993, said she has been heartened by the progress Valenti and Cooper have made. Gilmore said their meetings with Northland parishes — mandated by an agreement with the Clay County prosecutor — have been well-received and reassuring.

But Gilmore, critical of past efforts, said the women must have the cooperation and support of clergy and church leaders.

"They have to have the information," Gilmore said. "But sometimes bishops and pastors get the information and don't go through the right channels."

In a written statement, Bishop Robert Finn said Valenti and Cooper, whom he has accompanied to parish meetings with other child safety specialists, are doing critical work for the diocese.

"I have established the positions of ombudsman and the director of child and youth protection to help fulfill the Church's important mission to protect children," Finn said. "These vigilant and competent professionals are a tremendous asset to the church's continued commitment to the protection of children."

Valenti, who is the gatekeeper for complaints of child abuse, is a lawyer and once worked as an assistant Jackson County prosecutor on physical and emotional abuse issues.

Before joining the diocese, Cooper worked in the arcane field of corporate compliance for American Century Investments, making certain the firm was obeying all financial regulations and laws.

As reclamation projects go, rebuilding the diocese's child protection program is a substantial task.

In the last year, the Rev. Shawn Ratigan, a once-popular Northland priest, was charged in federal court with producing and possessing child pornography. In the resulting firestorm, Jackson County prosecutors charged Finn and the diocese with misdemeanor failure to report suspicions of child abuse.

All have pleaded not guilty. Ratigan is scheduled for a federal trial in June, while the failure-to-report cases go to a jury in September.

But re-establishing the diocese's position as a strong voice for child safety is more than crafting a simple set of reporting instructions for average Catholics.

The bigger picture for both women is reviewing and standardizing child protection policies and then training thousands of clergy, staff members and church volunteers who work at institutions serving 133,000 Catholics in 27 counties, including 98 parishes and 42 schools.

"We want to make sure our diocese is in compliance and make certain our parishes and schools have all the resources they need," Cooper said.

Valenti and Cooper are frank about why they chose to step into the maelstrom. Each is the mother of three elementary-school age children who attend Catholic schools in the diocese.

And both said they believed they could offer something positive to a church that had richly nurtured them.

"I said yes because I've grown up Catholic," Valenti said. "I have watched the sex abuse problem unfold in the church. With my law enforcement focus, I felt like I could help make a strong model for protection in the diocese."

One of their most enthusiastic supporters is a man whose disappointment with the diocese's handling of the Ratigan affair was as public as it was profound.

Before stepping down recently, Jim Caccamo headed the diocese's Independent Review Board, which Finn and Vicar General Robert Murphy never notified of their concerns about Ratigan, until after the priest's arrest in May 2011.

Caccamo then spoke openly about his frustrations of not being informed about a memo written by a Catholic school principal about Ratigan's conduct around school children and later about lewd pictures found on the priest's laptop computer.

But Caccamo said that one of the reasons he felt comfortable stepping down was the example that Valenti and Cooper were setting for the diocese.

"It's just remarkable," Caccamo said. "They are making such good changes. They are dedicated to openness and transparency. This is about our children, and, boy, do they get it."

Valenti is hesitant at this point to discuss the number or the nature of the calls she has received reporting concerns about sexual abuse by priests or other church employees. That, she said, would become clear when Cooper releases a report on her activities, probably in July.

Valenti has, however, developed a system to rank calls and guide her responses. She said calls will be categorized in these areas: alleged sexual abuse of a minor; possible boundary violations, and clergy misconduct that does not involve minors. A fourth category would cover referrals of possible child abuse that has not occurred in churches or schools, for example, from a Catholic school teacher who suspects that a child in her class is being abused at home.

In all cases, Valenti said, Missouri's mandated reporting law would be followed to the letter and the proper referrals to law enforcement and the diocese's review board would be made.

However, Valenti is standing by her earlier decision not to initiate internal church investigations based on anonymous tips, though she will pass that information on to law enforcement if it is detailed and specific enough.

Protecting children, she said, is a serious commitment for everyone in the church, and knowing who is making an allegation is an important factor in determining its credibility.

"How are you protecting children if you're not coming forward with your name and specific information about where and when the crime occurred?" Valenti asked.

Cooper, who serves as a second set of eyes on the calls that Valenti receives, said the diocese's model for responding to abuse concerns has changed fundamentally. The initial response has been taken out of the hands of clergy, she said. And responders now are willing to act on a wider range of issues.

"Now the message is, 'If you are aware of suspicious behavior, report it, too,'?" Cooper said. "That's a proactive model."

Both women also are deep into a re-evaluation of the diocese's sexual misconduct policy, which they said could use clearer language and reporting instructions, and have begun exploring how each of the church administration's 33 departments handle child protection issues.

"We want the policy to be uniform," Cooper said.


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Comments

Bill Fisher March 30, 2012 | 3:25 a.m.

Wow, it's so sad that it's come to this. The one place anyone should assume they'll be protected, needs to have a special team in place to make sure the leaders of the organization don't rape the children. Way to go, Catholics.

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