by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Parents do a lot of things to protect their children: immunizations, bicycle helmets, car seats and smoke detectors — just to name a few.
But not all dangers out there are material or situational. There are human dangers, too: predators who stalk and sexually abuse children.
This scary truth has led many entities — schools, sports clubs, outdoors clubs — to develop youth protection policies that include training for adults and education for youths.
Revelations about sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church led the U.S. bishops to meet in Dallas in 2002 and approve the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.”
All dioceses that signed on to the charter are required to have safe environment programs comprised of training for both adults and children. They are also audited regularly to ensure compliance.
The Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas implemented the Virtus training program for adults in 2003.
Anyone in the church who has substantial contact with minors — priests, deacons, religious, teachers, coaches, school staff, parish personnel and volunteers — is required to undergo a background check.
They are also required to attend Virtus child protection and awareness training. Afterward, they are required to undertake continued training through Virtus online bulletins.
Additionally, the archdiocese has widely distributed blue-colored cards that have reporting phone numbers and procedures, as well as a brief summary of a plan of child protection. The cards must be posted visibly in various locations.
Archdiocesan employees are also required to read and sign the archdiocesan Child Protection Policy, Code of Ethical Standards and Harassment Policy.
Two programs were also implemented for children in 2005. Both are offered annually, usually at the beginning of the school year. They are required for children who attend Catholic schools, parish religious education programs or participate in youth groups.
One, the Happy Bear program for children ages 4 to 7 is offered by Sunflower House. The second is Teaching Touching Safety, offered by Virtus, for children from kindergarten through grade 12.
Each parish and school have a safe environment coordinator who administers the aforementioned programs under the authority of their principal or pastor.
Are these programs effective?
Yes, said Becky MacCallum, a counseling consultant at Christ the King School in Kansas City, Kansas, and at Good Shepherd School in Shawnee. She also teaches the Virtus program for adults.
“I don’t think all parents talk to their children about the importance of personal safety and what to do,” she said. “I think [the programs] are effective because the children hear them every year in some form, and it’s good to have that safety information repeated and be fresh in their minds, and not in just a one-time talk.”
“It’s effective because some children are exposed to this kind of thing and they need to know there are people available to help them,” she continued. “It’s important not to keep our children naive to the point that they cannot protect themselves.”
A few parents opt out of this training for their children, but most are glad the archdiocese is taking measures to protect children.
“People are grateful the archdiocese addresses the issue and is proactive about protecting our children,” said MacCallum. “In my adult training, I’ve had very positive feedback from parents saying, ‘I’m so glad we’re doing this. I hope more parents attend; I hope people are more aware and involved.’”
In a perfect world, there would be no sexual abuse of children, or there would be child protection programs that stop all abuse all the time.
But in the far-from-perfect one in which we live, programs like Virtus for adults, and Happy Bear and Teaching Touching Safety for children go a long way toward keeping everyone safer.
“Our goal is prevention,” said MacCallum. “Through education and being proactive we can, hopefully, help kids grow up in a world that is safer. We can help adults and kids know what to do if anything is happening that shouldn’t be happening.
“Can we 100 percent prevent it?
“No. But we can sure put forward a good effort, and I think that’s what we are doing.”