Ombudsman, director focused on protecting children

Diocesan Ombudsman Jenifer Valenti, left, and Child and Youth Protection Office Director Carrie Cooper stand behind the Diocesan Independent Review Board. They are from left, Dr. John A Larson, PhD; Joyce Estes, LCSW; attorney Amber Gonzalez Heineman; Vicar General Msgr. Bradley Offutt; attorney Daniel J. Haus; Jean Tadokoro, MSW; Father Robert H. Stewart; and Chairman James Corwin, retired chief of the Kansas City, Mo., Police Department. (Kevin Kelly/Key photo)

By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor

KANSAS CITY — Reports are up to the diocesan ombudsman and she couldn’t be happier.

“People are becoming more vigilant about their role in protecting children,” Valenti said.

And they are placing their trust in her and in the new Diocesan Office of Child and Youth Protection, headed by Carrie Cooper, to investigate each report thoroughly.

“The frequency of reports are increasing, and I am getting more reports than I got last year,” Valenti said.

During her first full year on the job, ending June 30, Valenti investigated 79 reports. In the five months since, she has already investigated 39 reports.

But Valenti quickly added that she has no new case reported to her of serious, potentially criminal sexual abuse of children by any church clergy, employee or volunteer.

The reports she is receiving, Valenti said, fall in two categories: “Referrals,” or reports of possible abuse noticed by church personnel but committed possibly by a person outside the church; and “boundary violations” in which church personnel have possibly violated policies in place to protect children.

An example of a “boundary violation,” Valenti said, would be a volunteer tutor who meets which a child alone behind a closed classroom door.

Those issues are usually cleared up by advising the person of policies that require two adults to be present, and never behind closed doors, Valenti said.

“Referrals” often require Valenti assisting the person who made the report to her to notify proper authorities whether law enforcement or in the Missouri Department of Social Services, Children’s Division, formerly known as the Division of Family Services.

“People don’t know how to make a report, so they call me, and that’s fine,” she said. “I have had examples where I have initiated a three-way call with DSS.”

That’s because the job of the diocesan Child and Youth Protection Office is exactly that, — and both Cooper and Valenti see their role as part of the solution to a deeper societal problem.

“Sexual abuse exists in all segments of society,” said Valenti, a former Jackson County assistant prosecutor with expertise in combating child abuse.

“I do not believe that there are more predators in the Catholic Church than there are in any other segment of society. It’s not a Catholic problem. It’s a societal problem, but the Catholic community is addressing the problem,” she said.

“We are trying to be open and transparent in our communications and our actions,” said Cooper, who also noted that more than 25,000 people — including adult volunteers and Catholic school and parish school of religion students — have taken the diocesan-sponsored “Safe Environment” training that raises awareness of child sexual abuse and how predators operate.

“This program is a tool to allow you to build a better safety net for the protection of children,” Cooper said. “It helps you be a better parent, a better aunt, a better uncle. Its very much a part of the solution.”

Cooper also said that in the first year of the Office of Child and Youth Protection, she and Valenti have reached out to law enforcement officials to build a relationship.

“One of the first things we did was meet with the chief of the Sex Crimes Unit (of the Kansas City Police Department),” Cooper said. “We want to have a contact there, and we want to collaborate.”

Cooper said that she and Valenti are now striving to build similar relationships with prosecutors and law enforcement in every one of the 27 counties that make up the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.

Cooper added that she and Valenti are also doubling down on their training of teachers, clergy and others who come in contact with children to make certain that all are aware of the requirements under law to report suspected cases of child abuse to the authorities.

In fact, Valenti urged anyone who suspects child abuse to report it to law enforcement in addition to, not instead of, reporting it to her.

“We want people to report to law enforcement. We want people to report to the Children’s Division,” she said.

Valenti and Cooper said that when they receive a report, they will take immediate action.

“We have placed people on administrative leave pending an investigation,” she said. “It’s not a punishment. It is the safest precaution to take to give everybody a chance to evaluate the allegation and determine if it is credible.”

And every report, they said, is then forwarded to the diocesan Independent Review Board for evaluation of both the allegation and the investigation, which Cooper and Valenti said is a major change in past practice and policy.

“The IRB will hear every report,” Cooper said. “We won’t pick and choose which cases they hear.”

Valenti said the IRB, chaired by retired Kansas City Police Chief James Corwin and filled with people with expertise in social services, law, and law enforcement, will also evaluate the way Valenti has investigated each case, the way Cooper has applied diocesan policies to each case, and will make recommendations.

And that suits both Valenti and Cooper just fine.

“I don’t have the discretion to decide which cases to bring before the board,” Valenti said. “I have to present all cases.”

“These are professionals working in the field,” Cooper added. “They are evaluating us, and we want their expertise.”

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Tuesday
September 30, 2014
Newspaper of the Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph