I recently completed the VIRTUS training required of all laity who work with Catholic youth. And my experience with it has left me shaken, angry, and seriously questioning the purpose and focus of the program.
Allow me to explain before you skip to the combox in horror. I am a catechist in my parish. I used to be a public school teacher. I’ve worked in several schools as a substitute, one as a full time teacher, and three parishes in various capacities, and it wasn’t until December of last year that I was contacted to complete “sexual predator awareness training” or “child protection classes” or whatever it’s being billed as now. Four public schools, three churches, over the course of thirteen years, and it wasn’t until my parish’s fantastic Director of Religious Education spotted it that I was forced/required/requested to attend classes regarding child sexual safety.
As I understood it, the training’s purpose was to educate laity who would be around children in a parish setting how to 1. Spot warning signs of abuse and then report them immediately, and, to a lesser extent, 2. Learn how to minimize opportunities for abuse to happen. Fine. Made sense, and I was told the class would take about an hour, so it wasn’t a tremendously big deal. Anything for the children, right? We have to be in compliance, right?
I attended a class hosted by a neighboring parish, and was able to carpool with a friend who also needed to complete the training. We arrived, checked ourselves in, and sat down in a large social hall. A giant projector screen had been set up, sixty or so people filed in, and the program started.
With a pronouncement that we would be there for the next three hours.
Three hours. My friend and I, both mothers of small children, looked at each other, gape-mouthed. Why was the training an hour at one parish, then three times longer at another? Weren’t the classes uniform across the diocese? We tried to call our husbands to let them know that we would be wildly past the time we’d expected, but there was no cell phone coverage in the building, and the movie had started, so we figured we’d accept our fate. Compliance and all that.
With the movie, things went from bad to worse. Within five minutes of the start, we were suddenly presented with five child victims of rape and sexual abuse, each telling their stories. My blood ran cold and I honestly wondered if I was in the right class. Each child told their story in such a flawlessly professional manner that my stomach started hurting. They were articulate, they were polished, they all came off like Dale Carnegie graduates. Tears shed during their stories were tasteful and subdued, emotional displays were present, but never out of control.
I have survivors of childhood rape and molestation in my family. When they tell their stories, they either stare off into the distance and speak in a detached monotone, relaying the events robotically, or else they sob- even with decades and decades between themselves and the attacks. So to see five children and young adults speak so charmingly about their experiences, was chilling. It sanitized the gaping wound of sexual abuse and made it something tamed and palatable for an audience.
And why? That question was the one I couldn’t get out of my mind. Why include this at all? Was there a single person in that room that had arrived with the thought, “You know, I’m kind of on the fence about this whole sexual abuse of children topic. If only I could see actual footage of the damage it does to people, then I could probably make up my mind about it.” Was there a single person in that room that was unclear about the horrific nature of the acts committed by a specific set of priests and the bishops who covered up for them? Why were we, the laity, being required to watch what was quickly boiling down to an indoctrination film as a solution to crimes that were not ours?
My heart broke particularly for the young girl who was one of the interviewed survivors. She was young, no more than eight, and I find it difficult to believe that it was entirely her decision to allow herself to be part of the film. Her parents were also part of the movie, and their emotional responses, so much more visible under the surface than the victimized children, were not only the sole example of recognizable rage, but also hinted at who really had made the decision to appear. I suspect they viewed this as part of the healing process, to allow the girl to tell her story, but I thought of the adult version of that girl, who someday may wish to draw a veil over this wounded part of her to reveal it to who she chose, when she chose, but now would be unable to, because her story would forever be viewed at VIRTUS classes throughout the country.
I was still puzzling through the “why”, when another grotesque portion of the training came up. Interwoven with the victims’ stories were interviews with two men, convicted of child sexual abuse, and presumably in jail at the time of the filming. We were now subjected to two men discuss their victims in lurid detail, the methods they used to groom their intended victims, and the escalation of their crimes. Not satisfied with trotting out the children, it was apparently decided that we, the laity, weren’t sufficiently horrified by the nature of the crimes committed, and so a large portion of the two videos were dedicated to giving voice to the criminals themselves.
The first video mercifully ended, the lights came back on, and the facilitator directed us to worksheets that had been placed in the folders we picked up on the way in. We were told to look over the questions on the appropriate sheet, respond, then share with the rest of the individuals sitting at our table our thoughts.
Let me make this clear. We had just watched 40 minutes of children discuss how they were raped or otherwise sexually molested by trusted adults, followed by leering pedophiles explain how they groomed their young victims, and we were now expected to have a group therapy session with random strangers? Again, I found myself completely discombobulated- this was supposed to be a training session on recognizing warning signs and minimization of opportunity for predators- why, why, why were we now being asked to discuss our feelings? How is this a subjective thing? How is there room for exploration? Talking head A. comes on, talks about the profile of the typical sexual predator, Talking head B. follows, outlining tips to eliminate the creation of environments hospitable for future abuse. Talking head C. finishes up detailing non-verbal signals a victim of sexual abuse gives off. We watch, we take notes, we go home. What was going on here? If this is what compliance looked like, I couldn’t help but wonder what we were complying to.
After our small group talk session, we were invited to share our thoughts with the larger group. It was during this that our facilitator dropped yet another bombshell on my world- that the USCCB has asked each diocese to provide something called “Child Lures Prevention” training to every child in every diocese. As best as my shell-shocked brain could comprehend, “Child Lures Prevention” was a program designed to explain to children how to recognize appropriate physical contact vs. inappropriate. The woman specifically mentioned concepts like, “no one should touch you in your bathing suit area”, and assured us that the program was very “age appropriate”.
My friend and I again stared at each other, gape-mouthed. While her two oldest children attend the parish CCD classes, mine do not. I was shocked that I hadn’t heard of this since I’d taught classes for two years and never once was told I had to mention anything along these lines. My friend was shocked that she hadn’t heard of it because her oldest child had attended classes for two years and never once mentioned anything like this. Our hands shot up, and the facilitator, sensing trouble, had us break for lunch and came over to talk to us away from the group.
The only question I could force out was, “Why does the Church think it needs to cover any degree of sex education in CCD classes? Isn’t this something best left up to the parents? At the very least, the schools are covering it.” The woman smiled at me sweetly and said, “Oh no. We’ve learned that the schools aren’t covering it, even though they say they are, and so we have to.”
I bit back my immediate retort: “Schools say they’re covering math and science, too, yet evidence indicates otherwise- are we going to start covering those in Sunday school?” And instead said, “I don’t understand why this is something to be discussed in theology classes. Why not give the parents the information at the start of the year and allow them to cover it?” Again, the smile. “We tried that. Parents weren’t covering it. We need to.”
I could feel my blood pressure rise. This woman looked at me blandly. “Parents are the primary educators of their children,” I reminded her, thinking that a little Catechism bomb would help break through the insanity.
It didn’t. She sighed and said to me, “Parents have the right to opt their children out of this training. But I have no idea why they would want to. It’s the parents who don’t want their children to know this information who are the ones doing the abusing.”
I shut down at this point. What else was there to say? I was faced with an employee of the diocese who honestly believed that a parent who would prefer to broach issues of a sensitive nature like this in a time and manner fitted to each individual child was a molester. When she told me about a local parish that chose to do their “Child Lures” training in a single hour-long seminar, which required every student from kindergarten all the way up to ninth grade to hear the same information at the same time, I was a million miles away. Age-appropriate indeed. But hey, at least the parish was in compliance.
We ended training with a prayer. And while one would hope that a class designed to battle an evil so awful it could only be diabolical in nature would include a prayer calling upon someone like St. Michael, we instead were treated to a nauseating bit of poetry invoking the image of children with chocolate-sticky fingers who love to be tickled- an odd detail for a three hour lecture that basically made us suspicious of anyone who’d ever dare to tickle a child again.
It’s not just my experience with the program that was shockingly intrusive. I’ve heard of VIRTUS instructors advising attendees to download sexual predator apps on their phones, dioceses requiring everyone- all the way down to EMHC– to take the training (“EMHCs may be in the sacristy alone with altar servers at some point, and so they need the training”. And? If that’s our reasoning, then every single Mass-goer should be required to take it, in case we’re ever in the bathroom with a minor at some point during the homily) and sessions that have a full page of intra-diocesan reporting protocols for reporting suspected abuse, yet only a sentence or two telling the laity that they would be supported should they decide to contact the civil authorities.
VIRTUS training, something born out of the sins of a few priests and the bishops who sheltered them, has become a millstone around the neck of the laity. We are paying for the sins of others and being told we have to do so in the name of compliance.
No, I take that back. It’s not the adults who are paying- it’s the children. When I finally escaped the training session, certificate in hand, I went home and emailed a number of people about my experience. One of them, speaking specifically about the “Child Lures” portion of the training, lamented, “I feel like I’m taking away some of the children’s innocence. But what can I do? We have to comply.”
What is the solution? Certainly a whole-scale refusal of laity to attend this training isn’t ideal, as it would mean the children would suffer the loss of catechists, but what is in place now is certainly objectionable. Recommendation of sexual predator apps? For what reason? Background checks are run for everyone who comes into sustained contact with kids in a parish setting. Are you checking out your fellow parishioners at Mass? Parents being told that they’re not properly instructing their children on how to protect themselves, being told the schools aren’t doing it, and that the only entity who can be trusted to do the job is the Church?
What we currently have in place is problematic on so many levels. At best it is a redundancy of what kids are already taught at home, school, Scouts, or sports. At worst, it is a program that is cultivating a toxic combination of witch hunt mentality and spin control.
But, as we know, we have to comply. So we’ve taken the infinite loss of innocence inflicted upon a finite amount of children and swapped it out for a finite loss of innocence inflicted upon an infinite amount of children.
Is this what compliance has to look like?