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VIRTUS protects youths and adults

virtus-graphic_webWhen Father Michael J. Dobbins suggested that one of his parishioners take the VIRTUS training — which is required for all employees in the Diocese of Arlington, and 79 other dioceses, to help prevent, identify and act on abuse — he did not expect that it would have immediate results.

“I saw how effective it was, firsthand,” said Father Dobbins, pastor of St. John Bosco Church in Woodstock.

VIRTUS takes its name from the Latin word for courage and was born amid the need to better safeguard youths in parish schools and churches. 

The program, which is the brainchild of the National Catholic Risk Retention Group Inc., drills down on five key areas in protecting youths from sexual abusers: knowing the warning signs of abuse; limiting unsupervised access to children; reviewing programs involving children; noticing children’s behavioral patterns and if there are dramatic shifts; as well as voicing concerns to others.

“I was serving at a parish in Northern Virginia at the time, and I had encouraged a mom there to take the VIRTUS class because she loved to volunteer, but still needed to take that training in order to do so in the church,” said Father Dobbins.

As it turned out, the training she received alerted her to behavioral warning signs that indicated her daughter was being abused.

“After taking the course she went back home, sat her daughter down and asked, ‘Has anybody been touching you in a way that is not normal, especially in your private area?’ ” said Father Dobbins. “And the daughter said, ‘Yes.’ ”

According to Crispin Montelione, associate director of the VIRTUS programs, it is this kind of rapid reaction resulting from the training that survivors of abuse often wish they had.

“Survivors have said that they wish that their parents had been through training like this 20, 30, 40 or 50 years ago because it might have prevented their abuses from starting or continuing,” said Montelione.

According to Chanel Marquis, a diocesan VIRTUS training facilitator and compliance officer for child and adult protection at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Triangle, providing that extra level of security is not just to protect youths, but adults as well.

“We are all vulnerable. A lot of people have the misconception that we are just looking out for kids and that nothing can happen to us adults or seniors, but the truth is that it can happen to any of us,” said Marquis.

The key point that she emphasizes when teaching VIRTUS is the importance of talking about abuse.

“We all have to come together to talk about abuse. If we don’t then we are just burying our heads in the sand and hoping that it will go away. We need to arm ourselves with the necessary information. You have to work at it every day, it doesn’t stop,” Marquis said.

Deacon Marques Silva, director of the diocesan Office of Child Protection and Safety, said that the discussion element is primary to the training portion as well. Throughout the diocese, all new hires need to set aside four hours for VIRTUS training: screening a video and then talking about it.

“We understand that for someone going through VIRTUS to process it and begin to enculturate and absorb the material you have to start talking about it,” Silva said. “We know that the communities that start talking about sex abuse, the instances of it dramatically drop.

Although Montelione was unable to provide statistics on the effectiveness of VIRTUS at preventing abuse, Silva said that there are signs it is having a dramatic effect.

“One instance of abuse is one too many,” he said. “What we do know from the information that the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown shows us, is that since the implementation of diocesan procedures and safe environment training, instances of abuse by clergy have significantly dropped. But we must remain vigilant.”

For Father Dobbins, that one experience of his parishioner finding out her daughter was abused was enough to prove its value to him.

He recounted that when asked, the parishioner’s daughter said that it was her own father committing the abuse, an allegation that was confirmed upon further questioning by the police.

“This program was able to stop that girl’s nightmare, at least from the perspective of being victimized,” said Father Dobbins. “We need this. We absolutely need this.”


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018