Bishop McKnight updates safe-environments policy

Draws more adults into partnership for protecting children from abuse


The Catholic Church throughout the Jefferson City diocese continues to build and strengthen its network of protection for children and all who are vulnerable.

Everyone needs to be involved.

“Full cooperation among caring, trusted adults is our most effective line of defense against abuse and exploitation of young people,” said Bishop W. Shawn McKnight. “We need every adult to be able to recognize the signs of abuse and follow appropriate protocols when ministering to young people.”

For this reason, Bishop McKnight will require all volunteers whose ministry brings them into regular contact with minors, along with all parents of Catholic grade-school students, to complete the same safe-environment training as priests, deacons, religious, seminarians, deacon candidates and adult diocesan employees.

It includes participation in a VIRTUS “Protecting God’s Children” training workshop, available in person or online, and periodic follow-up.

Volunteers who work with minors must also consent to periodic background checks through the Missouri Department of Social Services and the National Sexual Offender Registry, and sign an affirmation of the Diocesan Code of Pastoral Conduct.

People who volunteer in a capacity that does not bring them into regular contact with children will be required to complete the VIRTUS “Protecting God’s Children” training workshop, sign the Code of Pastoral Conduct and submit to a limited background check.

In addition, people who volunteer once a year for a parish event that does not bring them into contact with minors must consent to a background check and sign the Code of Pastoral Conduct.

Volunteers in these last two categories can only serve while in the presence of someone who has completed the safe-environment training for those who volunteer with minors.

These changes will take effect Oct. 31 for priests, deacons, religious, volunteers, seminarians, deacon candidates and adult diocesan employees.

Parents of Catholic grade-school students who are not currently serving as volunteers or employees of the Church will be required to become compliant by completing the requirements of volunteers who work with minors portion of the new policy by July 2021.

“Only by knowing what to look for and speaking up when we see the warning signs of abuse can we create a truly safe environment for our children and young people to thrive in and grow in their knowledge of Christ,” Bishop McKnight stated.

United in purpose

The policies and procedures for the diocese’s safe environment program were developed in keeping with the U.S. Catholic bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People and its Essential Norms.

“The primary goal of these policies is to provide a safe environment for our children by preventing the opportunity for the abuse of minors,” the introduction to the diocesan policy states.

The policy presents clear, uniform expectations for adults doing work on the Church’s behalf.

“These best practices for pastoral conduct help create an environment in which it is much more difficult for adults to isolate young people and target them for abuse,” stated Connie Schepers, diocesan chancellor and director of child and youth protection.

The Jefferson City diocese has been using the VIRTUS “Protecting God’s Children” program since 2003 to help ensure that all children and young people in the Church are kept safe from people who would harm them.

The “Protecting God’s Children” curriculum teaches adults to recognize the signs that a child is being abused or is a target for abuse.

“In this way, we contribute to building a culture in which all adults work together to advocate for the safety and wellbeing of the children who are entrusted to us,” said Mrs. Schepers.

At the same time, all Catholic-school and PSR students in kindergarten through 12th grade receive age-appropriate instruction in maintaining the integrity of their bodies and informing a trusted adult if someone does something to them that makes them uncomfortable.

“We teach the children what safe touch is, in clear and simple terms that are directed to their age level,” said Mrs. Schepers. “We have found this to be very effective in preventing abuse.”

She noted that all parents want to know that their children are safe in the care of the adults who are teaching them or leading them in parish or community organizations.

“And if we educate the parents and those who work in the Church and educate the children, it makes it much easier for the community as a whole to identify the people who want to do them harm,” she said.

Highest standard

Bishop McKnight worked for over a year with diocesan staff and various advisory groups before updating the policy.

Among them were the Presbyteral Council, with priest representatives from each region; the Diocesan Review Board, a group of mostly laypeople that review allegations of abuse of a minor by an agent of the Church; the Hispanic Advisory Committee; and the members of his cabinet.

“Bishop McKnight listened to the advice of many people and took their feedback into account,” Mrs. Schepers said.

She emphasized that united vigilance among all the faithful is an essential part of keeping children safe.

“Many parents simply don’t know how to recognize the behavior patterns of people who are seeking to abuse children,” she noted. “The training we provide helps them identify that.”

She noted that when everyone agrees to learn and abide by a clear set of sensible rules, the people who think the rules do not apply to them tend to stand out.

“It’s up to all of us to identify the people who continue to do things that put children at risk,” she said. “We do it together.”

Bishop McKnight said the People of God can settle for nothing less than the safest environments for children and young people.

“Any sacrifice or inconvenience we as adults accept together is worth it,” he said. “Jesus Himself identified with the least among us. In doing so, He held us to the absolute highest standard for youth protection.”

The full text of the diocese’s updated Policy on the Protection of Children and Young People can be found online at