Dramatic headline belie abuse prevention prograss

by Joe Bollig
joe.bollig@theleaven.org

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — The large, stark headlines about recently announced clergy abuse settlements are reminiscent of those seven years ago, when the abuse crisis was at its height.

In August, it was announced that the Archdiocese of Chicago agreed to a $12.6 million payment to victims of clergy sex abuse. That same month the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph agreed to a $10 million settlement.

Although grim, these headlines don’t reflect another reality — the tremendous progress made by the church since the U.S. bishops approved the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” at their 2002 general meeting in Dallas.

For example, seven months ago, an annual audit found that for the fourth time in a row the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas was in full compliance with the charter.

These positive audits are due to the adoption by the archdiocese of educational and safe environment programs for adults and children. These include: Virtus: Protecting God’s Children, for adults, implemented in 2003; and Virtus: Teaching Touching Safety and the Sunflower House Happy Bear Program, for children, both implemented in 2005.

“I believe these [programs] are very effective and very worthwhile,” said Rita Herken, archdiocesan Virtus coordinator. “They are producing a safer environment for our children, because the more people we train and educate about the warning signs, the safer all our children will be.”

The archdiocese requires that each parish have a Virtus coordinator. Parish coordinators work with pastors and Virtus facilitators to ensure that all who are so required receive training and pass background checks.

The requirement for training and background checks covers people in a wide range of positions: teachers, classroom aides, school volunteers, religious education teachers, altar server trainers, playground and lunchroom monitors, CYO coaches, parish employees, cafeteria workers, and all priests and religious.

Virtus training for adults begins with a three- or four-hour training session, depending on the size of the group. Participants view two videos, which feature former abuse perpetrators, victims, and abuse prevention experts, and then are led by a Virtus facilitator in a discussion about what they’ve seen. The attendees are given two books — “Child Protection Policy” and “Code of Ethical Standards” — to read after the meeting, and ongoing training is provided through e-mail bulletins.

The videos prove to be “eye-opening” for many people, said Neona Russ, child-care director and volunteer Virtus coordinator for St. Agnes Parish in Roeland Park.

“The videos have victims of child sexual abuse who speak, and people who have committed the crime,” said Russ. “It’s pretty heart-wrenching. The first video is very shocking for a lot of people. It’s done in a very tasteful manner. I’ve never had anyone say, ‘It’s too much; I can’t sit through it.’ More than anything, once they get through the first video they’re saying, ‘Oh my gosh, what do we do?’”

Initially, some people are frustrated because they have to take the training before they can work in their ministries or volunteer, said Russ. But once they see the videos, they give their full support to the program.

Russ worked with a group of fathers who coached for the Catholic Youth Organization. After they completed their first Virtus session, they began to ask pointed questions about non-church programs, such as summer camps and sports leagues.

Virtus is designed in such a way that Russ can keep track not only of those who have been Virtus trained, but also whether or not they’ve kept up with their online training bulletins.

“We let them know if they’re behind,” said Russ. “I know there are a lot of schools that have programs where volunteers wear a badge, and if they’re not current, they don’t get a badge. It’s a matter of making sure they’re doing what they need to do. If you’re serious about being around children, it won’t be a big deal.”

In addition to the training and background checks, making a safer environment sometimes even includes physical modifications to buildings, said Linda DeDonder, pastoral associate and Virtus coordinator at Sacred Heart Parish in Emporia.

“We’ve certainly looked around our facilities to make sure that our classrooms are open, that anyone who is walking by can have visual access, including our confessional,” said DeDonder. “It now has a windowpane.”

Like many parishes, Sacred Heart has Virtus training in the fall for new teachers and volunteers, and in the spring for those who will be involved in summer religious education, said Marilyn Krueger, an office assistant and Virtus coordinator at Sacred Heart.

“We’ve probably had close to 400 people from our parish and surrounding parishes who have taken our training,” she said.

What really makes a safe environment program work is not just individual training, background checks on individuals, or even modifying classroom doors or confessionals. It’s about creating a culture of awareness, said Russ. This can only be accomplished by people working together.

“I tell [Virtus attendees] that they’re joining a team,” she said. “When they complete the training, I say, ‘Welcome to the team.’”

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