Suffer the little children: Winona Diocese taking steps to protect children from predators

By Jerome Christenson
Winona Daily News
March 20, 2016

Mary Hamann with the Diocese of Winona leads a small group of people through the VIRTUS Program Wednesday at Cathedral of the Sacred Heart.

Mary Hamann, with the Diocese of Winona leads a small group of people through the VIRTUS program on Wednesday at Cathedral of the Sacred Heart.

Diocese of Winona Bishop John Quinn speaks during a news conference in June 2014 at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Winona, where the diocese released new information on priests accused of abuse. "The priesthood carries with it a bond of trust," Quinn said. "When that bond of trust is broken, it cannot be restored."

It’s a syllogism that continues to haunt the Roman Catholic Church:

Some people sexually molest children.

Some people are Roman Catholic priests and religious.

Therefore, some Roman Catholic priests and religious sexually molest children.

For centuries, this was a reality spoken of in diocesan chanceries in hushed tones behind closed doors, spoken of in whispers at priestly retreats, and that haunted the dreams and blighted the lives of victims until it burst into public view and public consciousness.

What had been the deepest, darkest of secrets is now the subject of an Academy Award-winning film, the basis of legal actions that have driven diocese after diocese into bankruptcy and cast a dark shadow over all the Church does and says.

“Out of darkness has come a great light” resonates through the Christian tradition, and may well speak to the most lasting impact of the revelations of clerical abuse. With the October 2014 settlement of a suit brought against the Diocese of Winona and the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, the Diocese of Winona committed itself to a specific set of protocols to defend children against abuse in the future and make amends to those who suffered abuse in the past.

“This is an action plan,” Jeff Anderson, attorney for the victims, said when the protocols were announced. “An action plan that not only protects kids in the future, but honors the pain and sorrow and grief of the past.”

The Diocese of Winona website summarizes how those protocols are put into practice:

  • By thoroughly screening and supervising all members of the clergy (priests and deacons), as well as all employees and volunteers who work with children and young people as part of their ministry.
  • By providing appropriate training in recognizing and reporting child abuse to appropriate civil and Church authorities.
  • By holding all members of the clergy, employees and volunteers who work with children and young people to Christ-centered and professional codes of conduct.

Ben Frost, director of youth ministry for the diocese, pointed out that the diocese’ Safe Environment Program has been audited and the diocese found compliant every year since 2003, and that since 2002 more than 30,500 criminal background checks have been done on diocesan clergy, employees and volunteers.

Frost describes the Church’s approach as “building walls of protection” around children and doing so in a way that addresses not only church personnel and children within the church, but to protect all children against all sexual predators to the greatest extent possible.

To build those walls, he said, the church conducts background checks on all adults — employees, clergy and volunteers — who come in contact with children, all adults who come in contact with children participate in child abuse awareness training, and children are taught to be aware of their own rights and dignity and to bring any concerns to a parent or trained adult.

In the Winona Diocese, the primary means of building those “walls of protection” is through VIRTUS, a training program developed by National Catholic Risk Retention Group, an insurance organization that provides insurance protection to the Catholic Church in a number of areas, including liability for sexual misconduct. VIRTUS is specified by name in the October 2014 settlement agreement for safe environment training for all employees of the diocese.

In the Winona Diocese, VIRTUS training has been required for employees and volunteers working with youth and children for five years, well before the settlement agreement, Frost said.

Since it was first offered, 9,868 adults have attended more than 1,200 VIRTUS training sessions offered at locations throughout the diocese by more than 70 trained facilitators. In addition to adult training, during the 2014-15 school year more than 11,000 children in Catholic schools and parishes took part in “Circle of Grace” awareness training to help them protect themselves against potential molesters.

Wednesday evening, the latest VIRTUS training group gathered in Holy Family Hall at the Cathedral in Winona. About 10 people, youth volunteers and church employees signed in and began looking over a workbook and other materials provided at several round tables clustered around a big-screen TV.

Mary Hamann, who works in the diocese Office of Safe Environment, facilitated the two-hour session. “I have three daughters and a granddaughter,” she said in introduction, “This is my passion, as well as my job.”

The session consisted of two videos produced and provided by VIRTUS, each followed by a discussion guided by Hamann according to the VIRTUS workbook. The videos are a combination of statements by victims and victimizers, spoken by actors, interspersed with commentary by law enforcement investigators and experts who have studied child sexual abuse and the behavior of sexual predators who target children and youth.

The language and examples are reasonably frank, although the type and extent of sexual activities are not made explicit and the term “private parts” is used thoughout, rather than specific anatomical terms for breasts, buttocks and genitalia. The videos stress that abuse involves both boys and girls as victims, and men and women, gay and straight, celibate, single and married as potential perpetrators.

The second video presentation shifts emphasis to practical steps for prevention and intervention. A five-step program is systematically spelled out focusing participants on awareness of the warning signs of potential abuse, the need to control adult access to children through screening and background checks and to consistently and proactively monitor that contact. And, finally, how to react to and report abuse that may be taking place.

Policy in the Winona Diocese significantly differs from the VIRTUS recommendation when it comes to reacting to and reporting suspected abuse. VIRTUS suggests that initially a person should speak to the person involved in suspicious behavior or speak to that person’s supervisor – actions not recommended by most persons and agencies involved in child protection.

Instead, it is policy of the diocese, clearly, explicitly and publicly stated by Bishop John Quinn, that any suspected abuse should be immediately and directly reported to law enforcement, Frost said.

“It’s hard to watch,” Hamann said of the video presentations. “It’s hard to talk about.” But with one of ten men and one of five women sexually abused at some point in their lives, we can’t turn away, can’t ignore it, she said.

“It’s not just what’s going on in the Catholic Church,” she said, “It’s important for everyone – moms, dads, grandparents. Catholic or not.”

“I’ve worked twelve years in youth ministry and I’m the father of five children, so I have a real vested interest in this,” Frost said.

“It’s not a perfect system,” Frost said, but VIRTUS provides a way for the church to be proactive and train and raise the awareness of a significant number of adults.

“This is a step forward.”

“Child protection is so very important in our church today,” he said. “Our mission is to put our youth in contact with God’s love, and it’s our obligation to provide a safe environment where we can achieve that mission.”

“Child protection is so very important in our church today. Our mission is to put our youth in contact with God’s love, and it’s our obligation to provide a safe environment where we can achieve that mission.” Ben Frost, Diocese of Winona
director of youth ministry




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