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February 20, 2003 Edition

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Grand Mom

Reporting abuse: Time has come

photo of John Huebscher
Eye on the 

John Huebscher 

Wisconsin law, like that in most states, requires members of certain professions to report instances where they believe a child has been abused or neglected or when a child might be at risk of such injuries.

The justification for making certain professionals "mandatory reporters" is that they see children regularly and their expertise helps them identify indicators of abuse and neglect.

Their reports are made to county law enforcement officials and/or county agencies charged with protecting children. These agencies investigate the report and determine whether additional action is necessary.

Mandatory reporters

As noted in a previous column, legislators are considering a proposal to add members of the clergy to this category of mandatory reporters. Such a proposal was considered nine years ago but did not become law. It should become law now.

Some have expressed concern that expecting clergy to report child abuse and neglect will threaten the free exercise of religion guaranteed by our Constitution. While we should always take such concerns seriously, asking clergy to be mandatory reporters does the exercise of religion no harm.

In fact, diocesan policies in Wisconsin already require priests and other church employees to report abuse and neglect, even if not legally required to do so.

Moreover, laws in most other states already treat clergy as mandatory reporters. There is no evidence or indication that this requirement has interfered with the pastoral relationship between priests and lay people in those states.

Maintain confidentiality

As it did nine years ago, the draft legislation does not apply to information learned in the sacrament of confession or similar communications in other faith traditions where the clergy member has a duty to maintain confidentiality.

Further, since bishops do not hear confessions from priests in their diocese, anything a bishop hears about a priest-abuser will come to him outside the sacramental seal and would be reportable.

Still others are concerned that this provision will make priests and other clergy "informants" who will be compelled to pass on misleading or incomplete information that will result in the destruction of families or the loss of a person's reputation.

Certainly no one wants to see innocent persons harmed by false accusations. But just as mandatory reporters by their experience are able to discern when a child appears to suffer from abuse or neglect, or is in danger of abuse or neglect, so do the investigators, whether in law enforcement or child protective services agencies, have experience to look beyond the appearances and suspicions. They take this duty seriously.

Those who investigate reports take care to sift and winnow the cases where the child is in danger from those where he or she is not. As a result, unsubstantiated reports do not result in a formal accusation with the accompanying publicity.

Adding credibility

No system is perfect. But perhaps all of us, especially children, are better served by a system in which reports of child abuse are investigated by those trained for the task. Just as the opinion of an outside auditor adds credibility to parish and diocesan finance reports, so do the findings of trained investigators add credibility to diocesan policies intended to protect children.

For Wisconsin's Catholics, adding clergy to the list of mandatory reporters provides an opportunity to restore trust and live up to the vision of the Charter on the Protection of Children. For Wisconsin's citizens, it provides an opportunity to strengthen our state's commitment to help vulnerable children. Such an opportunity should not be squandered.

John Huebscher is executive director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference.

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Loving our foreign neighbors:
Following others' example

photo of Audrey Mettel Fixmer
Grand Mom 

Mettel Fixmer 

I love to read stories about senior citizens who are willing to give their time and talents to helping others.

Better yet, I love to meet such people. To be able to get to know them and form an enduring friendship is the best of all worlds.

And this is exactly what happened when my editor, Mary Uhler, sent me to cover a story about the students of St. Henry School in Watertown. Students had collected over a thousand dollars to give to Dr. Robert and Lois Liners to help carry out their missionary work in Third World countries.

"It was good to see that the seeds of unselfish devotion to the poor and the handicapped were sown even in our generation."

I covered the story, met the incredible Liners, and it changed my life forever.

Helping the poor

The first delight for me came when I learned that Dr. Liners was a dentist who had worked hard to build a thriving dental practice in Watertown. His wife was employed as a social worker at both St. Coletta and Bethesda, in addition to raising their four children.

They unselfishly gave up their annual vacations to do free dental work among the poor in Guatemala for more than 25 years.

Catholic college grads

Something about that story rang a bell with me. Didn't I hear a similar story about an alumna from St. Ben's, my alma mater?

So when I called Dr. Liners to set up an appointment, I asked the big question that haunted me. "Did your wife graduate from the College of St. Benedict in Minnesota by any chance?"

"She sure did," he answered, "And I graduated from St. John's in '49."

I could not believe my good fortune. It was the same year my husband Bob graduated from St. John's. I had left the College of St. Benedict in my sophomore year to get married, but when I learned that his wife was Lois LaVasseur, a senior I admired when I was a sophomore, I was even more delighted.

Catholic education

The information that these noble people were both Catholic college graduates simply reaffirmed my belief that Catholic education turns out some of the best people.

I have frequently interviewed young people from our area who have given up a year or more to work with the poor right after graduating from a Catholic college. It was good to see that the seeds of unselfish devotion to the poor and the handicapped were sown even in our generation.

'An abundant harvest'

And what an abundant harvest the Liners have reaped! With some generous financial backing from their local Rotary Club, they were able to establish a dental clinic not only in Guatemala, but in recent years in Kilimambogo, Kenya, Africa as well - and to keep them staffed all year long.

To do this Lois worked tirelessly to secure other volunteer dentists from countries around the world. They all follow the example of the Liners and spend one month out of each year working in the clinics under primitive conditions.

Each time a replacement dentist arrives, the previous dentist stays on a few days to break in him or her. Lois keeps the rotation running smoothly by means of her computer and a lively monthly newsletter she publishes.

Keeping in touch

Since that initial meeting with the Liners, Bob and I have met them for lunch or dinner frequently. We enjoy some lively conversations about our alma maters and all of the "best people in the world" we know in common.

Lois and I keep up with each other by e-mail as well. Our lives are so full of action that we never have to resort to "organ recitals" about the aches and pains of aging bodies.

Difficult time for travel

With the Liners approaching their 80s, their children, like ours, hoped they would cut back on some of their work. Lois made one concession. She recently turned the newsletter publishing to another dentist's wife. But when February came around, they still made their annual trip to Kenya once again.

This time, however, Lois admitted to me that she is much more anxious about the trip than in the past. With our country perched precariously on the edge of war, traveling to foreign counties is unnerving.

How hard it must be at any time to move our old bodies out of the comforts of home and the security of the best medical care in the world. But adding the uncertainties of impending war makes it that much worse.

I have assured the Liners that our prayers go with them. Those of us who lack the means or courage to follow their example can always help out with prayers. Please add your prayers to ours for their safe return home.

Call for heroic deeds

Do you know any senior citizens who are performing heroic deeds like the Liners? If so, please let me know by dropping me a note about their work and let me know how to reach them for an interview. I would love to share their inspirational stories with my readers.

Reply to: Grand Mom, Box 216, Fort Atkinson, WI 53538.

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