ROME – A former colonel in the Illinois state police and former official of the U.S. bishops’ conference, recently tapped by the Vatican to help develop anti-sex abuse policies around the Catholic world, says she has “no doubt at all” that Pope Francis is personally committed to the cause.
“If the pope was wavering, I don’t think he’d give the commission the support he’s been giving it,” said Teresa Kettelkamp, referring to the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, established by Francis in 2014 to advise him on anti-abuse measures.
Kettelkamp, a veteran law enforcement professional who headed the U.S. Bishops’ Child Protection Office from 2005 to 2011, was hired in January by the commission to develop a template for anti-abuse guidelines and a set of “best practices” for use by bishops’ conferences around the world, especially in places such as Africa, Asia and Latin America that have not yet developed strong policies.
Kettelkamp spoke in an exclusive interview with Crux on Thursday, her first since assuming her new Vatican position.
Of late, some critics have questioned Francis’ seriousness about reform on the Church’s clerical abuse scandals, pointing, among other things, to his appointment of a bishop in Chile known as an apologist for that country’s most notorious abuser priest.
Kettelkamp, however, said the existence of a Vatican commission in itself is a sign of the pontiff’s resolve.
“It exists at the Vatican, it’s not someplace else in some remote part of the world, it’s right here inside the Vatican, and that’s a huge message,” she said.
Kettelkamp, who laughingly described herself as a “Type A” personality, said she would not have “picked up and moved to Rome” merely to provide window dressing for an institution not fundamentally committed to child protection.
“I wouldn’t be here if I had any doubt,” she said.
“I just have this heart for children and keeping them safe,” she said, “and if I can use the gifts I have to help children be safe in areas where right now they go to bed and night and don’t feel safe, you can’t beat that.”
Kettelkamp told Crux she bases her confidence in part on her experience of Boston’s Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, the president of the commission, and Monsignor Robert Oliver, a former O’Malley aide who’s now the commission’s secretary.
“The cardinal is one step away from the Holy Father, and I have not seen him, or the monsignor for that matter, waver at all,” she said.
“If their leader was wavering, we’d see some trickle-down effect of that, but we don’t.”
In terms of her Vatican role, Kettelkamp said her primary responsibility is developing a “template” for anti-abuse policies to be adapted by bishops’ conferences, drawing on the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” created by the U.S. bishops in 2002 as well as a circular letter from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2011.
The template, she said, will address issues such as “how to respond to victims, how to respond to an allegation, how to collaborate with parents and teachers,” as well as questions of whether educational efforts “should be age-appropriate” and more.
Once the template and a set of best practices are in place, she said, they can be adapted to widely varying local circumstances in different parts of the world.
“We’re sensitive to cultural differences,” she said.
One challenging aspect of her new role, she said, is persuading Church leaders in parts of the world where the clerical abuse crisis as Americans and others have experienced it – saturation coverage in the media, massive payouts as a result of litigation, and so on – has not yet really arrived to get ahead of the curve.
“Other countries haven’t had that experience,” she said.
“It’s not only a matter of putting together a template and helping other countries beef up theirs, but in some cases convincing them it’s not just a U.S. problem or an Anglo problem,” Kettelkamp said.
“It’s a problem of safeguarding all children and the value of children.”
In some cases, she said, countries in the developing world face more urgent problems such as violent conflict, natural disaster, or grinding poverty, and she grasps why her particular set of concerns can be a tough sell.
“We’re saying you need to keep your children safe, and they’re just trying to keep their children alive,” she said.
“I understand where their priorities are, and I just pray that they can hear us when we talk about the value of the child and we can use that to improve the situation.”
In more affluent nations that do have strong policies, she said, her role is to help them avoid “complacency” by reviewing their materials and learning from the experience of others.
Unlike many Vatican hires, who often never know precisely who spotted them or how they ended up in their jobs, Kettelkamp knows precisely how she got on the commission’s radar screen.
Last July, she said, she contacted a friend to see if he knew Oliver. When he asked why, she said she wanted to offer her services to contribute to child protection on a global level.
Her friend’s response, she laughed, wasn’t exactly encouraging: “You don’t have a chance,” she quoted him as saying, because she’s an American, a woman, and doesn’t speak Italian.
She reached out to Oliver anyway, saying she told him she’d even “open the mail” if that would help. After a meeting with O’Malley, she moved to Rome and has been on the job now for roughly three months.
Oliver told Crux that while the commission’s precise role remains a work in progress, there’s a reasonably clear division of labor with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog agency which, since 2001, has had responsibility for clerical abuse cases.
“They will certainly remain in charge of the juridical response to abuse, the norms, and so on,” Oliver said. “We’re advising on the child protection part, they’re working on the cases.”
Despite being a former cop, Kettelkamp said the lack of enforcement power in her new role isn’t a worry.
“My enforcer is not of this earth,” she said, saying she brings a “strong faith” and also a conviction rooted in the experience of “seeing all the good the Church has done” in turning a corner.
Kettelkamp said her baseline for success or failure is how effective she and the commission can be in forging a coherent global framework for child protection.
“I’ll judge it by whether we can reach those countries that we haven’t been able to get into yet, and knowing the children in those countries are safer because of the policies and procedures we’ve been able to share with them,” she said.
“That’s the measure, turning the tide.”