|Catholic Program Teaches Warning Signs of Child Sexual Abuse, Preventive Measures
Clergy, Principals, School Teachers and Parent Volunteers Are Required to Attend a 3-Hour Training Session
By Margaret Ramirez
October 12, 2008
The child molester spoke of his obsession with children and how he used a photo album to lure them into his hands. Later in the video, another abuser said he waited patiently for the right moment to touch a child. A little girl who had been abused said she hadn't understood what was happening.
Sitting with other Catholic parents in Chicago's Queen of Angels parish hall, we watched in sadness and disgust. We knew that learning about the evils of sexual abuse was necessary to protect our children, but how had we come to this point?
In the wake of the clergy abuse crisis, all church employees and parents who volunteer at Catholic schools must attend a three-hour sexual abuse training session known as the Virtus program, as well as undergo criminal background checks. The program is designed to help adults recognize the warning signs of child sexual abuse, learn the ways offenders work and take steps to prevent abuse from occurring.
The principal of my twin daughters' school announced last month that Virtus training would be required for parents who wanted to volunteer for field trips. With the preschool outing to the pumpkin patch fast approaching, I signed up.
At first, the idea was disturbing. My experience as a religion reporter had exposed me to the ugliness and pain of abuse. Thinking about my 4-year-old girls as potential victims cut like a knife, and a gush of anger, fear and helplessness came pouring out.
Yet, the session I attended last week opened my eyes to the expanded duties of today's parents, as abuse lurks within and beyond the church. For Catholics, teaching and nurturing faith remain at the core of parents' mission, but we must also watch closely for predators, speak to children about touching and be bold enough to report abuse immediately.
"I have done this training for several years and, to me, listening to the predators is the most chilling part," said Liz McGowen, a facilitator who leads Virtus sessions. "You hear how they work and lay their traps. It hits you. They're out there. They really do exist."
After the scandal erupted in 2002, the U.S. Catholic bishops established national procedures for addressing abuse allegations and mandated prevention programs, including Virtus.
In Chicago, clergy, principals and school teachers were the first to undergo Virtus training. Parents were not required to attend, said Jan Slattery, director of the Chicago archdiocese office for the protection of children and youth. But in the last 2 years, as the archdiocese certified more staff to lead the sessions, officials decided adult volunteers must be trained.
"We want our child to grow up in an environment where they are safe, where they don't feel threatened, where they develop into their full potential. And I think now it's almost incumbent upon us as parents, to help create those environments where that can happen," Slattery said.
Clergy abuse returned to the headlines last week with the trial of defrocked Jesuit priest Donald McGuire, accused of sexually abusing boys while traveling overseas on spiritual retreats.
Since the controversial case of Daniel McCormack, a Chicago priest who was convicted last year and sentenced to prison, Slattery said the archdiocese has seen no substantiated allegations against a priest in ministry. Yet allegations against employees and volunteers have increased, something she attributes to better vigilance from the Virtus training. (Slattery said she could not disclose specific numbers or say whether any allegations had been substantiated.)
During the training session, participants watch two videos that include interviews with two male offenders and several children who were abused by adults. A boy said his camp counselor had abused him, a girl told of being molested by a teacher, and a preteen girl recounted abuse by a priest. After each video, the facilitator leads a discussion—part information, part therapy—with parents about how to protect their kids.
One mother said she was disturbed by the predator who said his first offense occurred when he was 10 and his victim was 5.
"This makes me scared to send my kids to school," the mother said. "How are we supposed to guard against the older kids?"
Another man expressed discomfort with a portion of the video that instructed parents to talk to their children about private parts and what to do if a stranger touched them.
"Isn't that kind of stealing their innocence?" he asked.
"Well, we need to give them that information, so that their innocence is not destroyed," McGowen said.
Rev. Richard Hynes, among the few members of the clergy who are trained as Virtus facilitators, said he wanted to lead the sessions to apologize.
"I was ashamed of what some priests had done in abusing children. So I thought it would be helpful if a priest stood in front of the employees and the volunteers working with kids, and they heard a priest apologize," Hynes said. "It wasn't my behavior, but . . . priests need to stand against this."
Hynes said some parents question the need to be trained. He tells them the main reason is to raise consciousness of the problem.
"It's another tool in the parental toolbox," Hynes said. "The more awareness, the more difficult for a perpetrator to commit his or her crime. It's all about awareness, and as that increases, the children will be more safe."
After my own session, I arrived home after 10 p.m. and found one of my daughters still awake. She was sitting in her dark bedroom, crying after a nightmare. I held her tight and lay down beside her until her crying stopped.
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