Update: The Archdiocese Answers Awake’s Safe Environment Questions

By Sara Larson
Awake Leadership Team

As we explained in a previous blog post, Awake submitted a list of questions to the Archdiocese of Milwaukee in December 2019, in an effort to understand how local Church leaders are responding to the abuse crisis. We received responses to a shorter list of priority questions in January 2020, and you can find those responses here: Part 1 and Part 2

Members of the Awake Leadership Team met in February with Jerry Topczewski, the Archbishop’s chief of staff, and Suzanne Nickolai, Safe Environment program manager for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. At this meeting, Nickolai provided written responses to our questions about the Archdiocese’s Safe Environment Education sessions. (Nickolai also provided responses to our questions about the Community Advisory Board, which we will share on the blog next week.)

According to the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s website, the archdiocesan Safe Environment Education sessions are part of the broader “Safeguarding All of God’s Family” program. The goal of this program is “to protect our children and all in the church family from abuse and related dangers.” For a little background, here’s how the website describes the program requirements:

“Every priest, deacon, parish or school staff member, teacher and lay minister that is employed by a parish or school and any volunteer working with minors in our archdiocese is required to meet three requirements:

1- Attend a Safe Environment Education Session: This is a child abuse and maltreatment prevention program that must be attended in person. The current curriculum taught in this session is Circle of Care by the Archdiocese of Omaha. 

2- Pass a Criminal Background Check: This check is done at the start of employment or beginning volunteering with minors and must be done every five (5) years subsequently. The criminal background check is conducted through the CMG Connect portal.  

3- Sign the Code of Ethical Standards for Church Leaders: This code of conduct provides volunteers and employees with expectations and guidelines for how they interact with and conduct themselves in ministry. This code must be signed prior to beginning volunteering or working in a parish or school and is reviewed every five (5) years subsequently.”

Awake’s questions focused specifically on the required Safe Environment Education sessions, and the  complete responses are included below. Nickolai also emphasized that any individual with questions or concerns about the Safe Environment program could contact her directly at 414-769-3449 or nickolais@archmil.org.

Question from Awake Milwaukee: What process is in place to collect feedback from those who have attended Safe Environment Education sessions? 

Answer from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee: Any concerns regarding any facilitators or content in the safe environment program’s education sessions would be directed to the safe environment program manager. Any feedback can be directed to my office via phone or email. My contact information is listed on the Safe Environment webpage for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. I already do receive feedback regarding the sessions, and I am always willing to listen. 

What training is required for a person to be considered qualified to facilitate these Safe Environment Education sessions? Is there any ongoing supervision or formation of these facilitators? 

A safe environment education facilitator must have at least one letter of reference from a pastor.  We look for facilitators with good presentation skills, comfortable with the subject matter, as well as knowledgeable in mandatory reporting and the Charter for the Protection of Young People. The facilitator must attend facilitator training and register as a facilitator. Regarding ongoing supervision and formation, most of our facilitators have been facilitating sessions for several years and/or are in ministry in our parishes/schools.

Does the current Safe Environment Education curriculum include information about abuse of adults? 

The current safe environment education curriculum is a child abuse prevention curriculum as the required participants are individuals that are working for the Church or are volunteering in a position that has contact with children. Abuse of adults is a topic that would be addressed in the Code of Ethical Standards. We are always relooking at ways to help better equip our volunteers and employees in regards to abuse prevention. We do have trainings in process of development and approval to address the abuse of adults that we have been working on. Any additional training for safe environment certification would be recommended for specific groups based on specific ministry areas.

What provisions are made for survivors of abuse who wish to volunteer in the Catholic Church but might be triggered by the content of these Safe Environment sessions? 

We grant exemptions for attending the in-person live training to a survivor of abuse who wishes to volunteer or work. Each individual is worked with on an individual basis according to their unique situations and needs. 

What is the status of the Archdiocese’s exploration of options for updating and improving this training?

It is currently in progress. 

What are the rules for background checks and Safe Environment training at Catholic institutions for which the Archdiocese is not directly responsible, e.g. Catholic universities, retreat centers, etc.? 

Separate entities that are not archdiocesan parishes or schools would fall under the religious order or board of directors that govern them and would follow the requirements for employees of those organizations. We require any volunteer working with minors in one of our parishes or schools from an outside organization to meet our safe environment certification requirements for our archdiocese. We require any group organized through our parishes or schools that are participating at any of these Catholic institutions organized through the parish or school to meet all of our safe environment certification requirements. Most of these organizations have their own process for meeting their comparable requirements of safe environment certification.

Milwaukee Catholics, We Want to Hear From You
As we continue to pursue responses to our complete list of questions, we would appreciate your feedback about which topics are most important to you. Please take a few minutes to select your top 10 questions on our survey here: Questions for the Archdiocese – What Matters Most To You? You can also contact us at awakemke@gmail.com if you have other questions or comments to share, or if you would like to connect with our Advocacy Working Group.

Sara Larson studied theology at Marquette University, worked in parish ministry for eight years, and is a member of Saints Peter and Paul Parish in Milwaukee. She chairs Awake’s Advocacy Working Group.

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