Part 3: Recommendations for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee – Proactive Steps to Prevent Abuse

This week we continue to explore Awake’s recommendations for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, developed to help our local church take next steps to address the evil of sexual abuse. Today we consider the third set of recommendations, which focus on unacceptable boundary violations that may set the stage for abuse. The complete set of recommendations for our archdiocese is available here.

Last week we shared part 1 and part 2 of the recommendations and explored why Awake is advocating for these changes. The recommendations come out of our efforts to learn from abuse survivors across the country and our careful research of best practices implemented in other U.S. dioceses.  

Next Steps, Part 3: Preventing Abuse Proactively

We believe the protection of God’s children requires creating structures of accountability to interrupt behaviors that may set the stage for abuse. 

Recommendations for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee
  1. Craft a uniform definition of unacceptable boundary violations and incorporate the definition, with specific examples, into the diocese’s Code of Ethical Standards for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.”
  2. Establish that church personnel are required to report instances in which they witness unacceptable boundary violations directly or suspect that unacceptable boundary violations might be occurring. 
  3. Use outside reporting agency Convercent to create the expectation of a parallel reporting process in which witnessed or suspected boundary violations are reported to an individual’s supervisor and also through Convercent for tracking purposes.
Why This Matters

Trauma psychologists and researchers say that sexual abuse often starts with the abuser making efforts to gain the trust of a potential victim. These behaviors, sometimes called “grooming,” may involve the progressive violation of physical, emotional, social, and sexual boundaries. Such boundary violations are often the first warning signs that children or adults are at risk of being abused.

Current training materials used in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee explain the grooming process and educate volunteers and workers about these warning signs of abuse. However, as the independent review of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s abuse-prevention practices in 2019 noted, simply including information about boundary violations is not enough; dioceses must establish strictly enforced policies to clarify expectations, empower reporting, and cultivate accountability.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers guidelines for “Preventing Child Sexual Abuse within Youth-Serving Organizations,” which state that reports of concerning behavior involving youth should go through at least two lines within an organization’s structure. The Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s current Code of Ethical Standards requires direct reporting of violations to “the supervisor or next higher authority,” but does not mandate a report to any other entities. Awake Milwaukee recommends that our local church require that reports be submitted both to the supervisor and to the third-party reporting agency Convercent. This creates a parallel reporting process and the necessary tracking system to recognize problematic patterns before they escalate. 

Our research of U.S. dioceses reveals that many have crafted policies that embody these best practices. They implement clear definitions of boundary violations, with specific examples, into their policies and codes of conduct; they establish a low threshold for the responsibility to report; and they clarify two lines of reporting responsibility.

For example, the Archdiocese of Miami describes “behaviors that raise serious concerns with respect to maintaining a safe environment” such as “failure to set appropriate limits with children” and “keeping secrets with children” in its “Creating and Maintaining a Safe Environment for Children and Vulnerable Adults” document. The Diocese of Fort Worth’s “Code of Conduct and Behavior for All Clergy, Religious, and Lay Ministers” includes a clear list of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors, as well as early warning signs of an inappropriate relationship developing. And the Diocese of Spokane delineates appropriate and inappropriate behaviors and outlines clear reporting responsibilities in its “Code of Conduct and Commitment” for clergy, staff, and volunteers.

We ask the Archdiocese of Milwaukee to create a safer Church by both spelling out which behaviors qualify as unacceptable boundary violations and requiring dual reporting of such behaviors.

Check back on Thursday, when we’ll explore Awake Milwaukee’s Next Steps, Part 4, which calls for transparency and accountability of the lay-led advisory boards in our archdiocese.

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