Story and photo by Patrick Downes Hawaii Catholic Herald
VIRTUS will soon be a familiar word in the diocese. Derived from the Latin word for excellence, it is the name of a “safe environment” program, aimed at keeping children safe from sexual abuse.
Primarily a program that trains church employees and volunteers on the recognition and prevention of sexual abuse of minors, VIRTUS will be adopted by all parishes and schools in the diocese starting Jan. 1. It replaces the program Shield the Vulnerable, which ended service to the diocese Oct. 31.
Pat Neal, director of VIRTUS programs and services, was in Hawaii for a week last month, introducing the new program to those who will use it and teach it.
She conducted meetings, webinars and training sessions with dozens of pastors, principals, educational leaders, department heads and safe environment parish liaisons, those who coordinate compliance of diocesan policies in their parishes. She also met with Bishop Larry Silva.
According to Neal, 100 dioceses representing 70 percent of the Catholic population in the U.S., use VIRTUS, a Tulsa, Oklahoma-based non-profit operation offered by the National Catholic Risk Retention Group, Inc.
One of the advantages VIRTUS has over the program it is replacing is its strong in-person training, in addition to an online instruction option. Shield the Vulnerable’s training was primarily online.
VIRTUS training explains the signs of child sexual abuse, the methods and means by which offenders commit abuse, and five easy steps one can use to prevent child sexual abuse.
Its three-hour, in-person sessions are “very interactive,” said Neal.
They consist of two half-hour videos, around which are built opportunities for increasing awareness of the issue, reflection and group discussion.
According to Kristin Leandro, safe environment director for the Diocese of Honolulu, the training sessions have served as an opportunity for people to share their own stories of abuse and as a chance to begin a healing process.
“Every session, someone comes forward,” she said, some speaking of their experiences for the first time.
The alternative individual online training consists of 13 lessons that take about an hour and 15 minutes to complete.
Safe environment training for church employees and volunteers is one of the requirements of the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” implemented by the U.S. bishops 15 years ago in response to the clergy sex-abuse scandal.
The “Charter” developed national standards to bring healing to victims of abuse and established the framework for the prevention of future abuse.
Church workers are trained to recognize the warning signs of abuse, impending abuse, violations of proper physical boundaries, as well as how to report abuse.
The Charter also calls for the training of students in Catholic schools and religious education programs to recognize abuse and how to tell someone about it.
Background checks are also required of those who work closely with children and youth.
The Diocese of Honolulu has been planning the “upgrade” to VIRTUS for months, Leandro said, so the move should be “seamless.”
Most current church workers will not have to complete VIRTUS training when the diocese switches to it at the beginning of the year. That is because the Diocese of Honolulu requires safe-environment training every five years and the current training will carry over through the change of programs.
Leandro expects some five to 10 new people trained a month starting Jan. 1 with more around July and August when new teachers are hired for schools and religious education programs.
For the two months, November and December, when the diocese doesn’t have a training program, parishes and schools taking on new employees or volunteers are asked to contact Leandro who will make special accommodations.