By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — This time, she really means it.
Mary Fran Horton, for the third time in her life, is retiring. Don’t bother calling her up, even if you’re a priest. She’s been there, done that twice, and she’s not going to un-retire again.
“It’s time,” she said.
“My husband (Mike) is retired,” Horton said. “We enjoy our time at our home at the Lake of the Ozarks, and we want to see our grandchildren.”
This won’t be like 1995 when she retired after a 20-year career as reading specialist and principal in the Shawnee Mission School District and returned at the urging of pastor Father John Weiss to be principal of Christ the King School in Kansas City for five more years, helping to establish the school’s model Early Childhood program.
And it won’t be like 2002, when then-Vicar General Father Pat Rush begged her to come back as a facilitator for training adult parish and diocesan employees and volunteers in then new Virtus “Protecting God’s Children” child sexual abuse prevention program.
That job even grew into the one she is now retiring from after another decade of service — safety coordinator for what has evolved into the Office of Child and Youth Protection, with responsibility for developing and implementing “safe environment” programs for all children enrolled either in Catholic schools or parish schools of religion.
And it’s not that Horton is leaving without a sense of accomplishment.
“I feel very honored to be part of safety training,” Horton said. “This church does so much good in so many ways.”
She also feels “confident” in the changes brought by the creation of the Office of Child and Youth Protection with two young mothers in charge — Carrie Cooper as director, and former prosecutor Jenifer Valenti as ombudsman.
“I feel at peace that we have formed a department directed and coordinated by lay people who are committed to see that reports are dealt with immediately,” said Horton.
“We’re mothers. We’re caretakers,” she said. “We value children and their safety. That is part of being a woman and a mother, and that brings a great strength and commitment.”
But being on the inside, knowing what the church is doing to combat child sexual abuse at all levels, can also drive a person nutty as they read the newspapers and watch TV about the “Catholic” scandal, she said.
“I feel very proud of what the Catholic Church has done in response to this,” Horton said.
“But there is so much misrepresentation of what the church is doing that it can be disheartening at times.”
Cooper said that Horton has every reason to feel a sense of accomplishment.
“Mary Fran laid the groundwork for what is now the Office of Child and Youth Protection,” Cooper said.
“She created a network of dedicated volunteers who facilitate the training for adults and children in our diocese,” Cooper said. “Her dedication to the diocese and passion for children’s safety are apparent from the moment one meets her. We are very thankful for the years of dedication and service she has given.”
Horton said that three training programs are now fully in place in every parish and school.
The first was the Virtus “Protecting God’s Children,” in which Bishop Emeritus Raymond J. Boland, as head of the U.S. bishops’ Risk Retention Group, was already in a lead role of establishing as a national model, even before the scandal focused on the Boston Archdiocese broke into national news in 2002.
“Protecting God’s Children” was a requirement of every church employee and volunteer who came in any kind of contact with children — even to sell popcorn at basketball games.
Horton was on the original team of trainers that crisscrossed the diocese, offering the training to nearly 5,000 adult employees and volunteers that first year. Horton recalled one session at Archbishop O’Hara High School when more than 500 people took the first part of the training in a single night.
Over its first decade, more than 25,000 adults throughout the diocese have taken the training, and its follow up online components.
And they haven’t all been Catholic employees and volunteers.
“We had other faith communities call us and ask us to bring it to them,” Horton said. “Because of our contract with Virtus, we cannot go to their sites, but I always invited them to our sites and told them that our training sessions are open to the public.”
Two years into “Protecting God’s Children,” Father Rush tapped Horton into establishing the “safe environment” education programs for children, now in place in all schools and parishes.
Those are done every year in two levels — the Archdiocese of Omaha’s “Circle of Grace” program for pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, with specific curriculum for each grade level, and Praesidium’s “Called to Protect” for high school students.
Those programs teach children and teens that they have rights and boundaries that adults should not violate.
“It’s basically about safe practices and how to react and where to go for help,” Horton said. “It teaches children how to open communication, that anything that doesn’t feel right, they should report.”
This is an area in which Horton has seen a great change.
“As society has changed, children’s rights are more recognized,” she said. “They need to be protected and respected and not taken advantage of. I feel very proud of what the Catholic Church has done and is doing in respect to this.”
As a former public school principal, she hopes that the Catholic Church is setting a model.
“I would hope as an educator that every public school would see how important safety education is, and that it is taught in every grade level,” Horton said.
But, as she said, “it is time” for new talent to pick up her work, as her role as safety coordinator for the diocesan Office of Child and Youth Protection will be taken over by Cathy Morrison, who has spent her career in corporate training.
But, she recalled the conversations with Fathers Weiss and Rush.
Horton said she doesn’t regret delaying her retirement for 17 years and extending her career in education. It was, she said, the ultimate opportunity to blend faith and talent.
“My Catholic faith is a very important part of my life, and this work is a blending of everything important in my life — the education and protection of children, and my faith,” Horton said.
“I would never give up on the church,” she said.