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New program rolls out for safe environment training

With continued emphasis at the local, national and international levels on improving safe environment programs, the diocese’s program to protect children and young people has seen some major upgrades over the summer.

Ernie Stauffenecker, director of safe environment for the Diocese of Duluth, said there are three main components to the changes: a new, more efficient, paperless online way to administrate the program; new child protection training for adults; and a new youth safety training program called Circle of Grace.


The program is now administered through Safe Environment Solutions software from the Catholic Mutual Group.
It comes with an upgraded background check and streamlined billing to parishes, and it is more user friendly.

“The benefits of the new administrative system are that it’s more efficient, eliminates numerous paper transactions, it is more secure in terms of safeguarding Social Security numbers,” Stauffenecker said.

The system required setting up safe environment coordinators in every parish and school to manage the system, but those coordinators now have a much easier time of it. They have access right online if, for instance, they need to check if a volunteer from another part of the diocese is certified — no phone call to the Pastoral Center needed.

New system for training

The way clergy, employees and volunteers of the church are trained has also been upgraded. In the past, the diocese used a system developed by the Boy Scouts, where the focus was on protecting boys. The new program is inclusive.

“The focus of the new program is to increase the adults’ skills in identifying grooming behaviors,” Stauffenecker said. “That’s really what it does —- pretty powerfully.”
Here too, printing out certificates and mailing them in has been eliminated. The training has a series of three videos and a self-test, all conducted online at the convenience of the user. An additional component on “expected behaviors” for the Code of Pastoral Conduct is also in the works.

Circle of Grace

The third component with major changes is the safety training given to children and young people. “Circle of Grace goes beyond just protection by helping children and young people understand the sacredness of who they are and how to seek help through their relationships with trusted adults,” according to the program’s materials.
In the past, the diocese used a secular program called “Child Lures” that was supplemented with faith-based lessons. This is faith-based from the ground up.

“It’s built around Theology of the Body,” Stauffenecker said. There are age-appropriate lessons for grades K-12.

The program aids young people “to recognize when they are safe or unsafe and to know how to bring their concerns, fears and uncertainties to trusted adults in their lives,” the materials state.


The implementation of the new program has been fairly swift. Stauffenecker said the program started out in mid-May and by September all the parish coordinators had been trained. “They are all in place,” he said.

While there are national concerns and an emphasis by Pope Francis to guard against complacency, everyone here seems to be taking it seriously. “Cooperation of parishes and parish staff has been tremendous,” he said.

Stauffenecker said part of the reason is the two bishops he’s worked with — now-Archbishop Dennis Schnurr and Bishop Paul Sirba, who has called protecting children and young people “the work of our lifetime.”

Stauffenecker said an experienced trainer brought in from outside the diocese told him Bishop Sirba was the first bishop she had ever seen sit through the entire training.

The new program is funded by United Catholic Appeal.

— Kyle Eller / The Northern Cross