BY KATHY SCHMUGGE
COLUMBIA — The Diocese of Charleston has begun a new child abuse prevention program with the hope of creating safe environments for its future. The Office of Child Protection Services held its first facilitator training session for the VIRTUS program at Our Lady of the Hills Church May 4-6.
VIRTUS was implemented after the 2004 audit of the diocese, required by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, recommended more frequent training and in more areas around the state.
The program is called “Protecting God’s Children” and was produced by the National Catholic Risk Retention Group. It is already in use by 85 dioceses around the country.
According to its materials, it “empowers organizations and people to better control risk and improve the lives of all those who interact with the Church.” The instructional material is structured so that volunteers can be taught to facilitate it, expanding the number of available instructional opportunities and teachers.
The program requires that priests nominate candidates to become facilitators for the diocese. The training emphasizes the prevention of child sexual abuse.
“Protecting God’s Children” enables volunteers, priests and teachers to become aware of the strategies that abusers employ and to use that awareness to help create a safe environment for children. The program elaborates on five steps adults can take to prevent abuse from occurring. Adults are taught to know the warning signs of abuse; to control access to children; to monitor all programs; to be aware; and to communicate concerns.
There is also a school component of VIRTUS, which involves lessons at age-appropriate levels. Parents have the choice of permitting their children to take the lessons in school or at home. The lessons are required of all Catholic students.
Jeffrey Silleck, director of the Office of Child Protection Services for the diocese, said that VIRTUS is not a course in moral theology, “but nothing you will hear today is contradictory to the church’s teaching.”
“The program is about protecting children and that is good work because children must be valued and protected by us,” said Silleck.
He used an analogy of a shepherd’s staff in talking about the program, saying that the staff is used to lead the sheep, but also to fend off wolves.
This first VIRTUS facilitator training was conducted by Sharon Womack Doty, Esq., a senior child sexual abuse prevention consultant for VIRTUS who has been involved with the development of the program since 1998. Doty has a master’s degree in human relations and a degree from the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics in interdisciplinary training in child abuse and neglect. Doty graduated with a juris doctorate from the University of Oklahoma College of Law.
When she is not training facilitators, Doty researches and writes articles in order to raise awareness about child sexual abuse. In her training session, she stated the goals and objectives of a certified VIRTUS facilitator and provided some basics for using the program. Doty answered questions and allowed the trainees to observe a session that she conducted for some of the priests serving the Diocese of Charleston.
Bonnie Sigers, supervisor of screening and education for the Office of Child Protection Services, said that although the diocese’s previous child abuse prevention training program was excellent, the facilitators of the Illuminations Exhibit could only come to the diocese five times a year. This limited the number of training sessions available for diocesan workers and volunteers. Sigers said the new program guides people in creating a safe environment for children by creating a community to prevent child sexual abuse.
“I know it is difficult for us to understand how a person could sexually abuse a child; it seems almost incomprehensible to us,” she said. “However, if we wish to protect children we need to understand why offenders sexually abuse. To create a safe haven, we must have that insight.”
Sigers said professionals agree that for abuse to occur three elements must be present: the offender must be sexually attracted to children; the offender must be able to justify his behavior to himself (“I love the child, the child loves me”); and a non-inhibiting environment must be present to make abuse possible.
“Although there is nothing we can do to affect the first two factors,” Sigers said, “we can have a great impact on the ability of an abuser to abuse by affecting the environment in which they have access to children. We can create an inhibiting environment. We must create a space where there is no opportunity for the abuse to occur. We must be diligent, and we must be proactive. We must take the steps necessary now to intervene in the cycle of abuse so that if we cannot completely eliminate abuse we can greatly reduce the possibility of abuse happening in your office, parish, school or even in your home.”
Dorothy Grillo, the diocesan victim assistance minister, is working closely with the child protection office to see that any victim of abuse receives the help he or she needs. Grillo is a licensed social worker.
“I’m very impressed with the VIRTUS program. I think it will be a wonderful resource for the diocese,” Grillo said. “I think it represents an excellent tool for all of us who are committed to the protection of our children.”
Anyone who wishes to report abuse by any diocesan personnel should call the Office of Child Protection Services at (843) 853-2130 ext. 209 or the victim assistance minister at (800) 921-8122.