Anne Vargas-Leveriza and Melanie Takinen work together to heal victims of sexual abuse in the diocese and protect all from future harm. (Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)
Anne Vargas-Leveriza and Melanie Takinen work together to heal victims of sexual abuse in the diocese and protect all from future harm. (Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)

Promise to protect. Pledge to heal.

The first statement serves as the foundation for the Church’s efforts in educating the community in its mission to prevent child abuse. The second underscores the work being done to reach out to survivors of abuse and to alleviate their pain.

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The Diocese of Phoenix’s Safe Environment Training Office and the Office of Child and Youth Protection work tirelessly to meet these commitments.

“I believe it’s everybody’s responsibility to be the eyes and ears of the community and be a part of our ‘Catholic block watch’,” said Melanie Takinen, director of Safe Environment Training for the Phoenix Diocese.

Prevention efforts locally involved training over 30,000 minors during the last academic year. Nearly 19,500 volunteers and another 3,061 priests, deacons, teachers and other employees also completed training.

Over the past decade, the Office of Child and Youth Protection has assisted more than 200 individuals and families who have been directly affected by sexual abuse, whether the abuse took place in the Diocese of Phoenix or not, according to a report published in 2012 to mark the 10th anniversary of the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” a landmark document established by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002 for addressing allegations of sexual abuse of minors by those in the Church.

The charter also requires churches to create a safe environment for children and young people, promote healing for survivors of abuse, and promptly and effectively respond to allegations, cooperating with civil authorities and disciplining offenders.

The Office of Child and Youth Protection hosted a special Mass for survivors of abuse and their families April 1 at Blessed Sacrament in Tolleson.

These Masses are held periodically throughout the year, usually during Lent and Advent. Survivors found it powerful to see the priestly support, according to Anne Vargas-Leveriza, director of the Office of Child and Youth Protection.

Her office is also working with parishes to promote Child Abuse Prevention Month during April as well as Blue Sunday, a non-profit organization dedicated to serving abused or neglected children. National Blue Sunday is April 27 this year.

Such outreach is in addition to partnerships with the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, the Maricopa County Children’s Justice Project, Phoenix Children’s Hospital and the Greater Phoenix Child Abuse Prevention Council. There are also ongoing interfaith and national coalition efforts.

“Through the years we’ve helped a lot of people in their journey of healing,” Vargas-Leveriza said. “We’re still evolving. We’re still trying to do other things to support the survivors.”

Takinen said some in the community are often surprised to learn how much the Church does in terms of child abuse prevention.

The Diocese of Phoenix requires regular education for its employees and volunteers that focuses on the signs of child abuse and how to report it. Takinen, through Safe Environment Training, works to build awareness at parishes and schools, and screens all volunteers.

A newer part of the diocesan effort is the addition of training for parish and school staff in mental health first aid. The training offers those without professional counseling skills signs to watch for and how to respond to someone showing signs of mental illness.

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