HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Officials with the Catholic Church in Hawaii said they have created policies and trained thousands to prevent sexual abuse of children by priests that was a problem nationwide and in Hawaii decades ago.
The Hawaii diocese and Catholic churches in Hawaii are preparing to spend at least $20 million to settle dozens of lawsuits filed mostly by men who said they were molested from the 1950s through the 1980s. The church has settled more than 30 of 40 abuse lawsuits through a mediation process that's scheduled to conclude later this month.
In recent years, the Catholic Church in Hawaii has encouraged churches to install windows in office doors, literally making things more transparent, and recommended that priests leave their office doors open when meeting with a child one-on-one.
"When they are in the care of our church, we want to make sure we are providing the safest environment possible for them," said licensed social worker Kristin Leandro, who is director of safe environment for the Catholic Church in Hawaii. The church elevated her position from part-time to full-time a year and a half ago to oversee screening, training and response efforts.
Leandro said the church has been requiring criminal background checks on priests and volunteers who work with children since 2002.
Out-of-state or out-of-the-country priests coming to work in Hawaii are now required to provide a "letter of suitability" from their bishop saying there's nothing in the priest's background that "would render him unsuitable to work with minor children."
"Especially with the priests who come from outside the US, we do not have any sort of background information. That's the source of background information that we're going by," Leandro said.
"If a priest is accused of any kind of misconduct and is moved to another diocese, then the two bishops need to talk. And then the diocese the priest is going to, that bishop needs to be notified of whatever history is pertinent," Leandro added.
Since 2007, the church said 4,016 employees and 5,266 volunteers, such as Sunday school teachers or coaches, have undergone online training.
"The training focuses on those adults who do work with youth, recognizing the signs of abuse in children, recognizing the signs of someone who could be a potential predator," Leandro said.
The online course lasts about an hour to an hour and a half, and is composed of case studies, role playing exercises and quizzes.
Church employees and volunteers must go through re-training and another criminal background check every five years, she added.
Hawaii Catholic schools and churches have also trained 1,634 students in the last eight years about how to prevent and report sexual abuse. The church also provides curriculum material for all grade levels, from preschool to 12th grade, about the subject.
"In a way, you're hitting it from both sides. And so when you've got all this awareness, it's a lot harder to keep things secret," Leandro said.
In May 2015, the Hawaii Catholic Church revised a 62-page manual on "safe environment" policies called "Reconciliation, Protection, Accountability." It was first published in January 2004.
It outlines detailed instructions on how to respond to allegations of sexual abuse, lays out background screening procedures and provides education for clergy and others who have contact with minors.
The guide provides several appendices with lists of questions to ask in preliminary investigations of sexual harassment or sexual misconduct.
It asks for the frequency, nature, dates and locations of the alleged misconduct, as well as how the victim responded to the alleged misconduct. The manual also asks if the accused cleric made or carried out any threats or promises.
The guide also asks church officials to conduct interviews, if possible, with any witnesses, anyone the complainant consulted or reported the misconduct to and others who may have been harassed or mistreated by the accused.
Decades ago, many complaints of sex abuse were ignored, covered up, or never reported.
Today, Leandro said, "The policy states clearly that any sort of sexual misconduct must be reported to the bishop and the proper civil authorities notified."
Church policy and state law require anyone who suspects abuse of a child to notify the police or the state Human Services Department.
The local church policies come from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, first approved in 2002.
The 2011 revision of the charter said, "We have listened to the profound pain and suffering of those victimized by sexual abuse and will continue to respond to their cries. We have agonized over the sinfulness, the criminality, and the breach of trust perpetrated by some members of the clergy."
SAMPLE "LETTER OF SUITABILITY":