By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — Jenifer Valenti said it plainly.
As diocesan ombudsman charged with investigating allegations of child sexual abuse committed by clergy and church employees and volunteers, she is not the person to call instead of calling police.
“If you have been the victim of abuse or know a victim, you should call the police, you should call DFS (Missouri Division of Family Services), and then you should call me,” Valenti told a group of about 40 people Jan. 7 at St. Charles Borromeo Parish.
Valenti’s cell phone number is (816) 812-2500. Her e-mail address is JeniferValenti@att.net. The toll-free Missouri Child Abuse Hotline number, operated by the Division of Family Services, is (800) 392-3738.
Valenti is part of the four-woman diocesan Department of Child and Youth Protection that was established in the wake of criminal child pornography charges last summer against Father Shawn Ratigan, former pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Clay County.
All four members of that department, as well as Bishop Robert W. Finn, attended the first in a series of education forums to be held in parishes across Clay County under an agreement with Clay County prosecutor Dan White.
And the message was the same as Valenti’s from all four members about reporting suspected cases of ongoing child abuse: Call law enforcement immediately.
“Incidents of sexual abuse of children will contine to occur unless we are all vigilant,” said department director Carrie Cooper.
“It is critical that we all know and recognize the signs of abuse, and it is critical to report it. We can’t leave it to someone else,” Cooper said.
Mary Fran Horton, a career educator who is in charge of the diocese’s Safe Environment programs, noted that since 2002, more than 23,000 adults have been trained in spotting the behaviors of predator adults through the diocese’s “Protecting God’s Children” program, mandated of every church employee and volunteer.
In addition, she said, the diocese’s “Circle of Grace” program for elementary-aged children and “Call to Protect Our Youth” program every year teaches some 16,000 Catholic school students and children enrolled in parish schools of religion of their “personal rights and boundaries” and to report to a trusted adult violations of those rights and boundaries by anyone.
In fact, Horton said, the Graves Report commissioned by Bishop Finn in the wake of the Ratigan case noted that those programs were directly responsible for parents and teachers at St. Patrick School noting Ratigan’s alleged “grooming” behaviors toward children and reporting those behaviors in writing to the diocese.
“My wish is that these types of safety programs are made available to all youth in all public and private schools in the United States,” Horton said.
Trish Peters, who began her role as victim’s advocate in January following the retirement of Leslie Guillot, said it will be her role to help victims of sexual abuse to find healing and services.
The church sex abuse scandal “has caused enormous pain and anger,” Peters said.
“The damage caused by the sexual abuse of minors is devastating,” she said. “We must listen and respond to their cries.”
And that means, Valenti said, a strong relationship among the diocese, the law enforcement community, and the Division of Family Services.
Valenti promised that if a victim or witness of an active case of child sexual abuse by any church employee comes to her first, she will promptly report it to law enforcement and the Division of Family Services.
“I will report it to the police, I will report it to DFS,” she said.
But she said the public should realize that her role as ombudsman involves conducting investigations and reporting to the diocesan Independent Review Board in cases involving clergy to determine whether the alleged perpetrator should continue in ministry.
But, Valenti said, all three agencies depend on a vigilant public.
“In order for the safety net to be effective, you must take a stand,” she said. “You cannot stand in silence when you suspect abuse. It takes courage, but you must report it.”
More educational sessions are scheduled for:
• Jan. 14, 3 p.m., St. James Parish, 309 S. Steward Rd., Liberty.
• Feb. 4, 5 p.m., St. Patrick Parish, 1357 NE 42nd Terr., Kansas City.
• Feb. 11, 1 p.m., Church of the Good Shepherd, 18601 North 169 Highway, Smithville.
• Feb. 18, 6 p.m., Church of the Annunciation, 701 N. Jefferson, Kearney.
• March 3, 5 p.m., St. Gabriel the Archangel Parish, 4737 N. Cleveland, Kansas City.