VIRTUS program helps adults to prevent, respond to sexual abuse of minors
While the issue of clergy sexual abuse has garnered much local media attention in the last several months, people shouldn’t forget or discount the Church’s comprehensive and ongoing work to create and maintain safe environments for children and vulnerable adults, say two people involved in those efforts.
Recent stories reported in the media “really have caused us to redouble our commitment to protection,” said Lynette Forbes-Cardey, coordinator of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis’ Office for the Protection of Children and Youth (OPCY).
“Sometimes you get discouraged when you’re in prevention and mass media focus on the sensational parts of the news,” said Sharon Tomlin, the office’s curriculum and leadership liaison. “Should all that come out? Absolutely. We can’t move forward if we don’t have everything out in public. On the other hand, nobody’s focused on all the positive things that are happening to prevent [abuse] now and into the future.”
Those efforts include a requirement in the archdiocese that all clergy, Church and Catholic school employees, and volunteers who have contact with minors do three things: sign a code of pastoral conduct, submit to a background check and attend an adult safe-environment training session called “VIRTUS: Protecting God’s Children.”
The archdiocese implemented VIRTUS in 2005 following the U.S. bishops’ 2002 adoption of the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” which requires dioceses to maintain safe environment programs.
A service of the National Catholic Risk Retention Group, VIRTUS was selected by the archdiocese as the most comprehensive safe environment program available — one that would complement its already existing policies and procedures focused on the prevention of sexual abuse of minors, Tomlin said. As defined by the charter, “minors” also includes vulnerable adults.
In 2013, 6,700 people attended one of 358 VIRTUS sessions around the archdiocese, according to the OPCY. More than 60,000 local adults have participated in the sessions since the program began.
Participants attend a three-hour session guided by a trained facilitator that includes two videos and both large- and small-group discussions. The sessions aim to raise awareness about child sexual abuse and provide adults with the knowledge and tools they need to help prevent and, if necessary, respond appropriately to child sexual abuse.
Participants are given a packet to take home that includes a reference guide outlining five essential steps for protecting children.
- Knowing the early warning signs of possible inappropriate adult behavior toward children (see sidebar).
- Controlling access: Adults should be careful about whom they allow to work with their children.
- Monitoring all programs to ensure safe practices.
- Being aware: Parents should know what is going on in the lives of their children and pay attention to subtle signs of a problem.
- Communicating concerns when they arise.
Among the warning signs are personal boundary violations that involve behavior that makes an adult or child feel uncomfortable or that is inappropriate for the type of relationship that exists between two people.
“For example, appropriate boundaries between a husband and wife are not the same as appropriate boundaries between friends or acquaintances,” according to “Protecting God’s Children: Teaching Touching Safety,” a resource published by VIRTUS. “And, appropriate boundaries between a parent and child are not the same as appropriate boundaries between the child and a priest, teacher or counselor.”
A boundary violation, even one that might be inadvertent, needs to be identified as such and corrected, Tomlin said.
Repeated boundary violations over time, however, often signal that a perpetrator is engaged in “grooming,” she said.
“It could be words,” she said. “It could be conversation, it could be physical touch, it could be any number of activities that are designed to desensitize the victim and gain the trust of the victim and the trust of the parents and, in many cases, the entire community.”
Grooming almost always precedes cases of sexual abuse, although the characteristics of grooming are changing as more predators attempt to build relationships with minors online, Tomlin said. That’s why it’s important to know the warning signs and best practices for protecting children.
In addition to the packets VIRTUS participants receive — which include specific instructions for Church and school personnel about how to report suspected child abuse to law enforcement — parents have access to free copies of “Protecting God’s Children: Teaching Touching Safety.”
VIRTUS, combined with the age-appropriate personal safety lessons used with students in Catholic schools, parish faith formation programs and youth ministry programs, offers a comprehensive approach to the prevention of sexual abuse that often exceeds the scope of safety measures used by other organizations serving youth, Tomlin said.
Most public schools, for example, have polices about background checks, Tomlin said. But fewer have additional adult training that accompanies the checks.
The value and impact of the safe environment training the archdiocese offers, therefore, has the potential to protect youth far beyond the doors of Catholic churches and schools and into other areas of their lives, Forbes-Cardey said.
Recent news reports about clergy sexual abuse of minors might dispose some to believe the archdiocese’s safe environment programs aren’t working. But the cases in the media spotlight during the last several months, with a few exceptions, involve abuse or alleged abuse committed between the mid-1950s and 1980s — before many elements of the archdiocese’s prevention program were implemented.
Forbes-Cardey said she believes VIRTUS and the archdiocese’s other safe environment initiatives are making a difference in protecting youth.
“You can’t prove a negative. We don’t know how many victims we have saved by people who have taken the VIRTUS training, and have intercepted it,” Forbes-Cardey said. But, she added, the OPCY has received information from parishes and schools that they have raised safety levels.
For example, some parishes and schools reported to her office that they now make sure that at least two adults who have undergone a background check, signed a code of conduct and participated in safe environment training stay with youth while they wait for parents to pick them up from faith formation classes.
Others said they keep all their room doors locked during faith formation classes, except for those being used, to ensure there is no place where a perpetrator could take a child to groom them or actually offend.
The OPCY has also heard about reports of boundary violations that stopped after the incidents were recognized and reported to the proper officials.
“The fact is that everybody is more aware,” Tomlin said.
Know the warning signs
Knowing the warning signs of an inappropriate relationship between a child and an adult can help parents and others identify potential abuse before it happens.
The warning signs are:
- Discourages other adults from participating or monitoring.
- Always wants to be alone with children.
- More excited to be with children than adults.
- Gives gifts to children, often without permission.
- Goes overboard touching.
- Always wants to wrestle or tickle.
- Thinks the rules do not apply to them.
- Allows children to engage in activities their parents would not allow.
- Uses bad language or tells dirty jokes to children.
- Shows children pornography.
Category: Local News