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News and Notes


Safe Environments safeguards the vulnerable

Woman and children

PALM BEACH GARDENS  |  It takes a village.

Those who oversee the vital work of safeguarding children and vulnerable adults in the Diocese of Palm Beach are part of a partnership in Palm Beach, Martin, St. Lucie, Indian River and Okeechobee counties. The Office of Safe Environments trains minors and adults to know the signs of abuse and conducts background screenings of employees and volunteers in parishes and schools throughout the diocese.

The office has lately undergone a personnel change with the retirement of Lisa Linnell as administrator of education and training and the hiring of Gina-Marie Loree as her replacement. Linnell will continue as the diocesan victim assistance coordinator.

Loree, who served nearly 17 years at Holy Name of Jesus Parish in West Palm Beach as youth minister and later director of religious education, also worked closely with the Safe Environments Office as a compliance administrator, helping to train children and adults and making sure clearances are up to date for employees and volunteers. Being familiar with the office’s work and staff, she said her move was a natural progression.

“This office has always been one of those that I felt was really looking out for the children,” Loree said. 

Her experience as a youth minister and DRE should prove invaluable. “Coming from the position of being in the field and now being on this end, I’ll be able to help those who are in the field,” she added.

Kathy Casey, administrator of background screening with the office, said, “We try to be very approachable, and we want to continue that.”

The office works hard to build awareness on issues of abuse, neglect and personal safety and make sure that predators are kept away from minors and vulnerable adults — all things that people didn’t used to talk about. By learning about the tactics of criminals and the need to be vigilant, more people are willing to say something if they see something.

Many people used to think that making a report meant they were accusing someone of wrongdoing, said Connie Oblaczynski, the office assistant who handles the fingerprinting program. But education seems to be dispelling those myths.

“I think there’s been a lot more recognition now that, by making a report, you’re just asking for the proper authorities to look into whatever has been reported,” she said. “It’s not that you’re saying somebody’s guilty or something absolutely happened. You’re just notifying the right authorities to be able to investigate and offer resources.”

The fingerprinting of employees and volunteers is done at five locations in the diocese: St. John of the Cross in Vero Beach, St. Joseph in Stuart, the diocesan Pastoral Center in Palm Beach Gardens, and two parishes in Boca Raton, Ascension and Our Lady of Lourdes. Again, that’s the kind of partnership that builds trust and keeps people safe.

In order to adhere to the church’s “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” and “Essential Norms,” the diocese teaches the Virtus Empowering God’s Children program in Catholic schools and parish religious education classrooms. In the past year, the Safe Environments Office has trained 14,525 children and 5,129 adults, Loree said. She said the program teaches children that they have the right to protect themselves and speak up.

“Giving teachers the way to teach children to stand up for themselves has been so powerful and life-changing for them,” Loree said. “They really come out and say things that they may have never said all year. It’s an enlightening program. I’m proud to be part of it.”

The Safe Environments staff is grateful to Bishop Gerald M. Barbarito, Father Albert Dello Russo, diocesan chancellor and Safe Environment coordinator, pastors, principals and compliance administrators for helping to keep people safe. 

Currently, the office is preparing for another audit of its work by an independent firm that examines compliance with national norms. The diocese has always been found in compliance.   

As the Safe Environments Office marks National Child Abuse Prevention Month in April, Loree said she is pleased to be part of the team trying to ensure the safety of children. “My heart has always been with kids. Always, always, always,” she said. “And when this program came up, it was very powerful for me because it really protects the children. It’s giving them a voice.”

For more information on the diocese’s Office of Safe Environments, visit Contact the diocesan victim assistance coordinator at 561-775-9558 or the Florida abuse hotline at 1-800-962-2873.