CHARLESTON — If you are an employee of the Diocese of Charleston, or a diocesan volunteer with access to children or vulnerable adults, you are required to attend a VIRTUS “Protecting God’s Children” program.
VIRTUS is the mandatory course that the diocese employs to create safe environments for children and vulnerable adults within parishes and schools.
In the first months after its introduction, Bonnie Sigers, supervisor of screening and education for the Office of Child Protection Services, said she has already seen its value.
“This is the first program we have had that actually gives you the tools with which you can identify a potentially harmful situation and prevent it before it happens,” Sigers said.
The difference in the VIRTUS program is that the scope of the problem of child abuse is laid out for the person attending the course; participants learn about the numbers of people who have been abused, the type of people who abuse the vulnerable and how the abuse can help be prevented. Contrary to popular belief, most predators are not strangers but are people who are known to the children and their families and gain their trust. “It’s people who look like you and me,” Sigers said.
The VIRTUS program presents interviews with both predators and victims. The program also explains the “grooming” process by which a predator emotionally manipulates a child and the adults responsible for him or her, whether family members, caretakers, guardians, teachers, or volunteers. One of the participants wrote in an evaluation that it was important to understand “the mind of a molester.”
“You trust them,” Sigers said of people who abuse children. “Trust is the issue. It’s what they depend on and use to victimize a child. That’s why you need a plan. VIRTUS is helping us develop that plan and institute a safe environment program within our parishes and schools.”
The five steps VIRTUS identifies for parishes and schools to use to create safe environments within those boundaries are: know the warning signs, monitor all programs, be aware, control access to children, and communicate concerns.
Participants in the workshop have written that they are grateful that the topic is being discussed. Comments included: “I think it was good that the church is openly talking about this and teaching adults about this topic.”
Sigers said people are moved by the victims’ stories. Another person commented in the workshop evaluation that “the frankness shown by those who had been victimized and [the information on] how to make your setting an uncomfortable one for molesters was the most useful part of this workshop.”
According to national statistics gathered by Darkness to Light, one in four girls and one in six boys has been abused. Only one in ten victims will ever disclose the abuse to anyone.
For more information on VIRTUS, call (843) 853-2130 ext. 206.
Published August 4, 2005, The Catholic Miscellany
If you have been abused by a member of the Catholic clergy or any other representative of the Catholic Church, please contact the Victim Assistance Minister at (800) 921-8122, or the Office of Child Protection Services at (843) 853-2130 ext. 209, or (843) 270-0727.