Pinwheels are spread out across the lawn at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church on Allen Street.
Reminder Publishing submitted photo

SPRINGFIELD — Spinning and sparkling in the sunshine, dozens of pinwheels are catching a breeze on the front lawn at St. Patrick Catholic Church on Allen Street.

The children’s toys are sending a warning and message of hope to anyone who comes to the church or drives by the building.

“The pinwheel represents a carefree, happy childhood we want our children to have without worries about sexual abuse, neglect or anything like that,” said Helen Laliberte, faith formation coordinator at the church.

Laliberte ran a small daycare center in her home for 35 years. When she talked to children about staying safe, she used pinwheels to get their attention. She’s doing the same thing at St. Patrick every April, which is Child Abuse Prevention Month.

“Our program, which is called ‘Circle of Grace,’ is a safe environment program we have for children. We tell them how to find a safe person they can talk to if you can’t talk to your parents. It could be a friend’s parent that you’re close to, or a teacher in school or at church they can talk to if they’re having a problem,” she said.

Laliberte told Reminder Publishing she has come across a handful of abuse cases over the years. She said each time, they have been resolved “professionally.”

According to the American Society for the Positive Care of Children, 7.5 million children were victims of abuse in 2022; 89% of victims were maltreated by one or both parents; 74.3% were neglected; 17% were physically abused; 10.6% were sexually abused.

Massachusetts had the fourth worst record of child abuse in 2020, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, exceeded by Maine, Alaska and West Virginia.

Laliberte said anyone who works at St. Patrick, including office staff, teachers, janitorial and volunteers, is subject to a Massachusetts Criminal Offender Record Information check. CORI returns criminal records of anyone in the statewide database. She said criminal background checks scour national records as well.

“We all get checked. We’re trying to promote the health of our children, mentally and physically, so they don’t have to go through any traumas,” she said. The church’s safe environment program also drives Laliberte and her peers at St. Patrick to research updated child abuse information.

“We go online every month and there are bulletins and other information we have to read and answer questions to. It can be on anything dealing with children, like being attentive to see if we can spot anything that might be off, how we have to treat it, how we can help these children and how we can report it,” she said.

St. Patrick, like other churches, runs youth programs and religious events all year.

Laliberte wants everyone to have confidence in those programs and all church activities — that means the staff is trained on preventing and identifying abuse, from mental and physical trauma to sex trafficking.

“We love our children and we’re out to take care of them,” she said.

The Catholic Church’s record on child abuse by priests is dubious, with some members of the clergy charged, convicted or admitting to criminal behavior. While the church grapples with this problem globally, St. Patrick is taking it on locally.

“I’m passionate about this because I did daycare for so long,” said Laliberte. “I want our kids to have a great childhood. I don’t want to see anybody abused, locked in closets or anything like that. It’s still happening, and it’s sad. Children have to have a safe environment.”

Staasi Heropoulos
+ posts