A Conversation with Erin Neil, M.S.W.

Erin Neil, M.S.W., is the founding director of the Office of Safe Environments for the Diocese of Bridgeport, which opened in 2003. When the 29- year old social worker stepped into the new position during the middle of the abuse crisis, one could easily have wondered how she would fare. But four years later, Neil has overseen a program that has gained national recognition and passed three independent audits.

On the fifth anniversary of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, Fairfield County Catholic sat down with Neil to reflect on the challenges and successes.

In your view, what has been our greatest accomplishment as a diocese in responding to the sexual abuse crisis? 

It’s important to recognize how well the VIRTUS Protecting God’s Children Programhas been integrated into parish life. Now we all think in terms of Safe Environments. We use the term across the board when going forward with any programs or plans.

I think we’ve entered a healing stage; we don’t see the same level of resistance going forward. But we need to be vigilant at all times. It is easy to get “Charterfatigue” because people feel that we’ve done it and been through it and are ready to move on. We have to remind ourselves that we can’t become complacent.

There appeared to be a groundswell of resistance when the diocese first introduced the program. How did you overcome this? 

Originally, some people would say, “I never hurt anyone,” or “Priests have the problem, not us.” It took a lot of one-on-one communication to explain things. People had to see that they were asked to take the training because they had an important role to play in protecting children. It wasn’t about them, but about what we all needed to do to contribute to a Safe Environment.

Ultimately, one of the most powerful things was the positive testimony of parents who took the training. This changed the culture. People realized they could indeed do something to protect children.

Has the training been mandated for priests and religious as well as lay employees, volunteers, vendors, and contractors? 

Yes. Every priest, deacon, and religious Sister who works in the diocese has gone through the training. Even priests who work in parishes for only the summer must be trained.

We’ve also trained more than 250 vendors and independent contractors. We don’t take much of their time, but they see how serious we are about it and they learn that they, too, can play a part in protecting kids. It can be a powerful deterrent.

Kids are naturally curious around a work or construction site. That’s why we require background checks and bring the video to the job site. Some companies like Pongo the Clown Company in Norwalk that deal with kids all the time are looking forward to the training. It’s good for their business.

Training more than 14,000 children and teens in Catholic schools must have been a challenge, given the sensitivity of the issue. 

Catholic Charities has been a tremendous resource. Having one counselor from Catholic Charities present the program has eliminated consistency problems that other dioceses have experienced. When we introduced the program, parents could meet with the counselor, get a look at the material and how it would be presented, and know that it would be the same from parish to parish, school to school. They were prepared to move forward.

Children get training delivered annually, and we’re always adding new modules such as Internet, cellphone, and technology safety, and even cyber protection from bullying.

It appears now that the dust has settled on the entire issue, people are able to put it in perspective, not only in terms of sexual abuse, but the challenge to the larger society. 

Statistically, child abuse is committed by heterosexuals, most of whom are married with children. New studies have shown us that females also can be perpetrators. With respect to priests, the John Jay Study commissioned by the U.S. bishops found that 3-4 percent of all the priests from 1950-2002 were involved.

It is important to note that there is an ongoing effort to understand the causes and context of abuse by priests within the Church. We’re one of the only a few major institutions in the U.S. that has ever undergone a study of this nature and scope.

Our awareness of child sexual abuse has changed dramatically in the aftermath of the crisis. Today, we talk of things that would have been unmentionable in the past. Is the program working? 

Yes. There have been no cases of current abuse in the past five years, and we’ve seen a significant decline in cases from decades ago. We don’t know if more victims will come forward, but we do know that things have changed. In the past there wasn’t a place for people to come to with a complaint; people were reluctant to disclose abuse. Today, every U.S. diocese has a Victims Assistance Coordinator. We’re much more open as a society and more aware of the problem and its warning signs. That bodes well for the future.

Photo credit: John Glover