Nazia Shafi leading diocesan Office of Safe Environment
For nearly 20 years, Nazia Shafi worked in human resources. It’s the field for which her formal education — a bachelor’s degree in quality management and a master’s in human resource management — prepared her. She trained and managed staff, did strategic planning, conducted employee performance reviews and led team meetings. She set goals and objectives, and taught others to do the same.
But in 2019, a year after leaving the corporate world, she entered a different employment realm.
“I never thought about working for the Church, and then this opportunity came. I saw actually an advertisement for the Asian ministry position in The Catholic Virginian,” she said. “And that’s when I thought, ‘Let me call and see if it’s for me.’”
She contacted Camboni Sister Inma Cuesta-Ventura, director of the Office of Ethnic Ministries, to learn more about the job. As she listened, Shafi said she thought, “Okay, so this is not for me” and was planning to leave.
But the nun assured her that she didn’t need to know the languages or the cultures of the people the office served. Shafi speaks Urdu, Punjabi, Hindi and basic French, and is “working on my Spanish.”
“She told me, ‘You can learn about that. I encourage you to apply for the job,’” Shafi recalled of her hiring. “So I did, and that’s what God wanted me to do.”
God had other plans for her. When the directorship for the Office of Safe Environment opened in 2020, she applied and was hired in June.
“The same thing happened with this position,” Shafi said. “I would never have thought about applying for this job because I just never thought about it. But that’s what God wanted me to do.”
‘Good measures for accountability’
Shafi became director of the Office of Safe Environment in the midst of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ annual audit of every diocese’s safe environment program to ensure that it is in compliance with the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.”
At the same time, she needed to provide BrownGreer, who was handling the diocese’s Independent Reconciliation Program, with information they needed in order to evaluate the claims that were brought to them.
Although the cases happened many years ago, Shafi said that what she read was “troubling.”
“Just to read those cases, to see the pain that the victims have gone through…,” she said. “That really is upsetting because there are so many incidents that could have been avoided.”
While learning what had occurred, Shafi also learned the value of what the diocese has done in recent years to protect children.
“I feel like we are in a good place right now, we have made some progress, we’ve put so many good measures in place for accountability,” she said, adding that none of the cases she read were recent. “So that gives you some reassurance that we are in a good place. We are providing that nurturing environment for children.”
‘Why we do what we do’
One of the changes Shafi has implemented in the Office of Safe Environment is how information is disseminated. Rather than one webinar that all parishes and schools were invited to attend but at which attendance was poor, she has taken a different approach.
“We work hard here, and there’s a real reason why we do what we do, making sure that we have these safe environments throughout the diocese,” she said. “So, I said we wanted to contact each parish and each school and speak to them individually so that we know what they are doing, and they know what we are doing.”
Since January, her office has met with 55 parishes and schools.
“We tell them the safe environment initiatives and tell them about our program, and then we also do their compliance check with them as well,” she said, adding that participants are free to ask questions so that her office can address concerns that arise.
She said no one can say “We didn’t know” when it comes to compliance expectations because these are addressed in each parish and school meeting.
“We’re just making sure they understand what the requirements are,” Shafi said of time invested to conduct each Zoom meeting. “It is totally worth it because we feel confident after that that they know what to do and they’re making those changes. And then we’re ready for the audit.”
Shafi considers safe environment part of the “fabric of the Church.”
“That’s how we introduce it when we do the forums. I tell them, ‘This is our ministry. This is our work. This is what we do, and the reason why we do it, this is why it’s so important,’” she said.
Although not required by the USCCB, Shafi encourages parishes and schools to have a safe environment committee.
“I tell them It’s not a requirement, but it’s highly recommended because when you have a group of people — this could be staff and volunteers, parishioners altogether — and they focus on your safe environment issues around your parish and they look at the programs that you’re running, those are the key people that will highlight areas of concerns to you,” she said.
Training teen volunteers
Shafi has also developed a training program for teens who volunteer to work with children in their parishes.
“We really like the fact that they come forward and they want to help. We don’t want to turn them way, but we want to protect them whilst they’re working with us,” she said. “This teens’ program is really to help them understand boundaries, what is a healthy relationship, what is a safe touch.”
Shafi said that when youth volunteer, they are there to assist the adult supervisor but not to supervise a group of children.
“Sometimes in parishes, we do that. We say, ‘OK, this 15-year-old can take care of this group of children,’ and it’s not right. They’re children themselves,” she said. “So, if they see something that is inappropriate, then we are giving them the tools of how they need to report that through this training program.”
Concern for children
Born in England and raised in a Catholic home and educated in a Catholic school, volunteering was natural for her.
“I was always a volunteer in parishes. That was my thing. I’d always have a regular job, and I would always volunteer to help out. For some reason, my concern was always with children, with the youth,” she said, noting she formed the youth group and led the sacramental program.
When she came to New York in 2007 and joined St. Ignatius of Loyola Parish, she volunteered to help and was put into religious education and human services.
“That was just my calling, she said. “I just was always wanting to do something to help and serve the community.”
She continues to volunteer at St. Michael the Archangel Parish, Glen Allen, where she, her husband Jamshed and their children, Sania, 9, and Aiden, 7, are members, and where she is a member of the parish’s newly formed intercultural council.
Having been called by God to head the Office of Safe Environment, Shafi relies on prayer to sustain her in her ministry.
“I am spiritually focused through the Blessed Mother. I pray the rosary for this purpose, and it just gives me so much strength, especially as I’m driving in,” she said. “And when I say, ‘The Descent of the Holy Spirit’ in the Glorious Mysteries, that just fills me up with that energy to carry on with that day.”
In addition to being the director of the Office of Safe Environment, Shafi became the diocesan coordinator for women religious in February. In that position, she interacts with and supports religious sisters residing and ministering in the diocese.