By Colleen Rowan | Catholic News Service
WHEELING, W.Va. (CNS) — Putting the safety of children, adolescents and vulnerable adults first, Bishop Mark E. Brennan of Wheeling-Charleston has increased the frequency of onsite safe environment audits of the diocese’s Catholic schools and parishes from every three years to now every year.
This move is fundamental to the bishop’s and the diocese’s commitment to “strengthen and grow a culture of safety.”
The audit is conducted by Stonebridge Business Partners, the contracted auditing agency of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The agency will begin the yearly audit in the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, which encompasses the entire state of West Virginia, in 2023.
Bishop Brennan announced his decision to move to a yearly audit in a letter to all Catholic schools and principals and all parishes and priests of the diocese.
“I firmly believe onsite visits at the local level are integral to ensuring that our parishes and schools have a clear understanding of and commitment to the requirements as set forth in the ‘Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,'” the bishop wrote in his Oct. 13 letter.
The charter is a set of procedures originally established by the USCCB in 2002 for addressing allegations of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy and other church workers. The charter also includes guidelines for reconciliation, healing, accountability and prevention of future acts of abuse. It was revised in 2005, 2011 and 2018.
The audit process measures compliance with the articles of the charter. The onsite USCCB/Stonebridge audit this past year revealed that a more robust look at the local level is necessary to maintain and assure overall compliance with the charter, the bishop wrote in his letter.
“We will do this for the good of our children, adolescents and vulnerable adults,” he said.
The onsite audit, the bishop continued, entails many components at the chancery level with diocesan staff in Wheeling as well as auditors from Stonebridge randomly visiting parishes and schools across the diocese to verify safe environment compliance and best practices.
The bishop stated the diocese participates in and will continue to participate in data collection audits every year.
Bryan Minor, director of Diocesan Administrative Services and process administrator for the safe environment program, also pointed to the Virtus sexual abuse training sessions that are available for parish and school staff, volunteers, parents and any interested adults.
“The safe environment protocol for the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston is about keeping children and vulnerable adults safe by reducing risk and raising awareness,” Minor told The Catholic Spirit, the diocesan newspaper.
“A benefit of the Virtus awareness training program utilized by our diocese is that it is applicable to any setting — not just church or school,” he said. “The program encourages best practices that can be applied to any circumstance.”
“This is the reality in today’s world — not just in the Catholic Church, but rather in society as a whole,” Minor added. “We look forward to participating in yearly USCCB onsite audits and helping our parishes and schools remain safe places where our children can grow and thrive.”
The move to yearly audits is a continuation of Bishop Brennan’s and the diocese’s commitment to restoring trust and building a culture of safety in the diocese.
In his letter, he pointed to other steps already been taken toward these efforts, including the release of the list of credibly accused clergy; implementation of a third-party reporting system — Navex Global’s EthicsPoint; promotion of reportbishopabuse.org for reporting misconduct and concerns pertaining to bishops; release of the diocese’s yearly financial audit/report; and engagement of Corporate Security Investigations, or CSI, for fingerprinting clergy and school personnel and onsite audits.
The diocesan Safe Environment Office said that CSI, which is based in Monaca, Pennsylvania, conducts the onsite compliance auditing when its personnel are in the diocese’s schools and parishes for fingerprinting sessions.
“This would be a third-party, independent spot check/audit in addition to the onsite audits by Stonebridge/USCCB,” said officials with the Safe Environment Office, who also noted the diocese has utilized CSI for this purpose since 2020.
“The transition to yearly onsite audits by the USCCB/Stonebridge is a natural progression of our efforts to ensure we are on solid and consistent ground relative to safe environment compliance throughout the diocese,” the bishop wrote in his letter.