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Can An Ombudsman Help Save the Kansas City-St. Joe Diocese?

Alex Smith

The local Roman Catholic diocese has attracted worldwide attention for its problems with child abuse, particularly for Bishop Robert Finn who is the first and only U.S. bishop to be convicted of failing to report suspected abuse.

Later this month, the Diocese’s Office of Child and Youth Protection will release its second annual public report on abuse in the parishes. The report is one of several big steps the Diocese has taken in recent years to address abuse, but some say these steps aren’t enough.

In the northern end of downtown Kansas City, Mo., employees of the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese and Catholic Charities come to work in a 19th century brick and brownstone high rise, and quietly carry out the administrative work for a diocese that serves more than 130,000. But even among these faithful employees, there’s anger at the Church. In a meeting room, Ombudsman for the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese, Jenifer Valenti, remembers the upset that she shared with millions when she learned about the sexual abuse scandals.

“I grew up Catholic and I watched the scandal unfold nationally and now it’s unfolding worldwide,” says Valenti. “There are many times I was disappointed about the way it was handled.”

Scandal sparks creation of new position

In early 2011, the scandal hit Kansas City in a big way when reports emerged showing that Father Shawn Ratigan had produced child pornography and Bishop Finn may have known about it. Revelations of the scandal caused local Catholics to demand that their church do more to protect children.

In June of 2011, the diocese took an unusual step by hiring Valenti, the first-ever ombudsman in a U.S. diocese.

Valenti is a former Jackson County prosecutor. As ombudsman, she investigates reports of what she calls “boundary violations.” These violations happen when a diocese employee or volunteer acts suspiciously toward a child, but it’s not enough to warrant an investigation by the police or social services. Reports of known child abuse are directed to the police or social services.

“Let’s say that both those agencies say that ‘there’s nothing there for us to look into’, then I would look into that and say, ‘okay, is there abuse happening in that situation? Or is that somebody who doesn’t understand what a good boundary is?” says Valenti.

Valenti then takes her findings to an independent review board made up of laypeople who work in child protection.

“That group oversees the work that I do,” Valenti says. “In an investigation, I report my findings to them and if they want further investigation, then I do it. [They provide] a recommendation to the bishop as to somebody’s suitability of ministry.”

Valenti is part of a five-person team that serves as the diocese’s Office of Child and Youth Protection. In addition to the ombudsman role, the office offers training to spot abuse, a victim advocate and a counseling coordinator.

A national reaction

While the ombudsman position is unique, child protection offices like Kansas City’s are now common in most US dioceses.

Dennis Coday, editor of the National Catholic Reporter, explains the offices got their start after a major 2002 child abuse scandal in Boston.

“The bishops were forced into the corner and they needed to act because they knew that they had not been protecting children as they should have been,” says Coday. “The public pressure, pressure from the pews forced them to act, and to develop a plan, a credible plan of protecting children and removing priest abusers.”

Following the scandal, U.S. bishops established a national Office of Child and Youth Protection. The Bishops developed a charter that set up standards for each diocese to follow, including creating positions like a victim advocate and safe environment training, as well as creating local child protection offices. Kansas City- St. Joseph has been in compliance with the 2002 charter every year, even in the year of its biggest scandal.

“Two years ago, when the Father Ratigan case broke here in the local scene, that year, the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese passed this audit,” says Coday. “They were found to be in compliance with the charter and so the question is, “If they’re in compliance with the charter but this is happening, what does that mean?”

For many area Catholics, it meant the diocese needed to go beyond the charter and do more to protect children. In addition to creating the ombudsman role, the diocese began creating annual reports on child abuse.

In its first annual report from July 2011, the diocese revealed 79 reports of suspected child abuse or boundary violations in areas both inside and outside of it jurisdiction. Seven of these cases were substantiated, and 14 people were suspended or removed from service.

Critics: annual reports only keep child molesters "in secrecy"

For a Catholic diocese, the reports that Ombudsman Jenifer Valenti produces are a big step in transparency. But critics say the diocese needs to do more.

“Valenti put out some numbers, but disclosing numbers protects no one. Disclosing the wrongdoers, that protects the vulnerable,” says David Clohessy, Executive Director of the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, or SNAP.

His organization has long considered Kansas City – St Joseph to be one of the worst U.S. dioceses for abuse. Clohessy believes that, in order to deter child abusers, the Diocese should name names and provide more to the public than an annual report.

“Valenti should speak up every single time, immediately, when a credible child sex abuse report is made. It helps predators every time Valenti and other Catholic officials save up information about child sex abuse for one report at the end of the year,” says Clohessy. “Every single day a child molester or possible child molester is protected and kept in secrecy, gives that person more time and incentive to destroy evidence, intimidate witnesses, scare victims, discredit whistle-blowers and potentially even flee the country.” 

Valenti says that, in some cases, the diocese does do more than the annual report. Any time an abuse allegation is made against a priest, the public is informed. But naming names, particular those of laypeople, is more complicated.

“There are some people that are credibly accused that are employees and so you can understand from a legal standpoint, I think that most people wouldn’t expect that names would be published until there’s a criminal proceeding. So, if there’s a criminal proceeding, that is something we would share,” says Valenti.

Despite the efforts the Kansas City – St. Joseph diocese has made to address abuse and bolster its Office of Child and Youth Protection, Clohessy of SNAP is still not impressed, and is suspicious of the diocese’s motives for revamping the child protection office.

“These offices look good and sound good on paper and in principle, but the sad simple truth is that these offices are one more effort by Catholic bishops to try to handle child sex abuse internally,” says Clohessy. “This is part of a very carefully orchestrated and very shrewd public relations campaign to convince parishioners and the public that bishops are reforming.”

Diocese has a long way to go

Valenti says she’s proud of the work her office does and believes that the transparency of her office can help rebuild trust. But she understands the skepticism many feel about her work and the department she’s part of.

“It was sometimes a surprise to me to know that people perhaps would question my integrity or question my motives or question my bias, and whether I have a bias. And so that’s something that I just had to deal with, and as a Catholic and as a mother, I think it’s okay,” says Valenti. “There’s going to be times that people just don’t support the work that we do. And I think that comes out of hurt and anger, and I think that’s oftentimes, legitimate.”

Coday thinks that the Church has a long way to go in dealing with child abuse, but thinks the enhancements KC-St. Joe has made to its child protection efforts will help the diocese to stay vigilant.

“What Kansas City did by putting high level, professional experienced people in, is probably a good marker for other dioceses, just to make sure the professionalism is at the highest level and it’s going to be an on-going concern,” says Coday.

For many churchgoers, the main question about child abuse efforts is: are they actually reducing abuse?

Valenti says she’s seen a slight tick down in the past year, but it’s probably too soon to say what the real effect is. That’s because, as Coday explains, most victims usually don’t report abuse until years after it’s happened.

“What we’re told by advocates for sex abuse victims is, it’s going to take ten, 15, 20 years after abuse happens before most victims can face up to it and report it,” says Coday.

The Diocese of Kansas City – St. Joseph will release its second public report on abuse later this month.

This story was produced for KC Currents, which airs Sundays at 5 pm with a repeat Mondays at 8 pm. To listen on your own schedule, subscribe to the KCCurrents podcast.

As a health care reporter, I aim to empower my audience to take steps to improve health care and make informed decisions as consumers and voters. I tell human stories augmented with research and data to explain how our health care system works and sometimes fails us. Email me at alexs@kcur.org.
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