‘We’re having a huge effect’: Safe environment trainer shares experience from the frontlines of keeping kids safe

Kevin Davies hesitated every time he was asked to become a safe environment trainer – he was either too busy at work or the topic itself didn’t seem very exciting. It would take a few years and a clear need in his parish for Davies to finally give a facilitator in his parish a reluctant “yes.” 

Thirteen years later, he’s trained close to 1,000 people on how to protect children from abuse and neglect. 

“The Church has done so much to stop the abuse and neglect of children,” Davies said. “I believe that if we really looked at the statistics, we’d say we’re having a huge effect.” 

Davies, who is a parishioner at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Fort Collins, has a degree in law enforcement and served as a deputy sheriff, an experience that has helped him appreciate the program even more. 

“It makes me very proud to be part of this effort of the Catholic Church… It’s one of the best programs I’ve seen, and I’ve seen a lot of training programs,” he said. “The Church really has gone through an extraordinary measure so that parishioners are well educated. There’s around three million people who have received this training.” 

Considering that a great portion of the people he has trained come from different parts of the country, Davies sees the that the impact of this training quickly extends to the national level. And throughout all these years, he has experienced in numerous occasions how meaningful this training has been for many people. 

“I’ve had many specific instances where people have shared a lot with me after class or by email,” he said. “For example, I had a very young lady come up to me and say, ‘I appreciate this so much – to know that I’m not alone. I never got help and I was abused and didn’t realize it.’ 

“I’ve also had people reach out to me regarding family members and neighbors with lots of situational questions and personal experiences they’ve had.” 

Davies has continued giving classes even amid the COVID-19 pandemic. He was surprised to receive a call from the Office of Child and Youth Protection of the Archdiocese of Denver personally asking him to give virtual trainings.  

“COVID has been a challenge and a reward,” he said. “It brought a whole new level of challenge none of us ever anticipated. But what this situation has also done for me is to expand my classes beyond my parish to the whole Archdiocese of Denver.” 

This situation has only motivated him to reach more people with the important message of protecting minors from abuse and neglect. His passion becomes evident in person and during his recent virtual classes.  

“Each of you here have the power to change a child’s future, you can stop abuse form happening,” he tells the participants. “If a child is being abused, that abuse will stick with them for the rest of their lives.” 

But overall, as part of this effort by the Church to protect minors from abuse and neglect, Davies emphasized the difference that has already been achieved thanks to the hard work and determination of many people. 

“I think people need to know that the Church is very committed to providing a safe environment not only for our Church, but for our community, and making our world a better place,” he concluded. “I would add the invitation to come and listen to one of these sessions. Through knowledge, we have the power perhaps not to stop this terrible thing, but to stop it for a single child.” 

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.