Over the last 10 years, the Office of Safeguard the Children has trained more than 300,000 adults to protect children and young people from sexual abuse.
So many adults couldn’t have been trained without dedicated volunteers, according to Joan Vienna, coordinator of the Office of Safeguard the Children.
She calculates 2,171 volunteers have assisted with training, a number that includes 593 VIRTUS facilitators, 430 trainers of Teaching Touch Safety Leadership and more than 1,150 Safeguard the Children parish chairs.
“As we learn and grow, we get better at addressing the situation,” Vienna said. “We’re training children to be their own voice.”
VIRTUS’ “Protecting God’s Children” is a three-hour training for adults that teaches basic steps for child sexual abuse protection. It is mandated for all adults who work with or around children or youth on a regular basis.
The Archdiocese of Los Angeles has trained more than 1.4 million students about how to detect and report abuse since 2005.
“Children are protecting each other now, too,” Vienna said. “This has taught us to be proactive in trying to stop sexual abuse before it happens.”
Vienna said her office’s goal is to create a culture of protection and awareness. Awareness of child sexual abuse is part of parish and school life now.
“We are doing everything we can to protect these children and young people,” she said. “They are a priority and our future.”
The emphasis on children and Vienna’s strong leadership is why Anita Robinson serves as a facilitator. Robinson, a parishioner at St. John the Evangelist, has been involved for nearly 10 years.
Parish volunteers who attend the training often come with a “Why do we have to do this?” attitude, Robinson said. But when they leave the three-hour session, their attitudes have changed.
“We invited them to be a partner in this. This issue is bigger than all of us,” she said. “They’re involved in protecting all of our children and vulnerable adults.”
Robinson said she doesn’t have to look far to explain that sexual abuse continues to be a problem in society. “All you need to ask them is if they’ve read the newspaper that week,” she said. Once volunteers are aware of the problem, they want to be a part of the solution.
“As long as one child is being abused [this needs to continue]. We want to eliminate all abuse,” Robinson said. “But we have to do it through education, through opening the eyes of people so they are aware of the issues that face all of us.”
For example, Robinson noted that most abusers are known by the children they abuse. Many abusers are relatives of the children.
“We let the kids know they have a right to be respected, to speak out, to shout, to run,” Robinson said, explaining that the program reinforced children’s right to speak out when they feel uncomfortable.
“They are precious and their bodies are precious and no one has the right to invade that,” she said.
Robinson also noted that clergy and religious attend the Safeguard the Children sessions. She once led a group attended by a bishop and 19 other priests.
“It was perfect to have priests present with the laity because it enriched the discussion,” she said. “We’re working for the same goal with the same level of interest, education and commitment.”
Father Martin Benzoni, chaplain of Mary Star of the Sea High School, has been a facilitator since 2008.
“A lay person brings a certain perspective and a priest brings a certain perspective, too,” he said of the combined sessions. “I think they complement each other.”
Father Benzoni noted in particular the awareness of how predators groom their victims and how abuse can happen through cyber networks.
“One of the most interesting things to me [about the training videos] is hearing both victims and perpetrators speak so openly about the whole experience of child sexual abuse,” he said.
In the evaluation form after the session, many participants write that they didn’t realize the prevalence of child sexual abuse or how it took place, Father Benzoni said.
“I’ve know people who have had to leave ministry, and a question I ask myself is if there’s anything I could have done and could have noticed,” he said. “The approach we’re taking is a response to what’s gone on.”
After the initial sessions, volunteers at parishes must sign up for refresher courses called “Keeping the Promise Alive” every four to five years.
If you are being abused, have been abused, or know someone who is being abused, you can call Victims Assistance Ministry at (800) 355-2545 for assistance to make a report, or seek help directly by contacting Child Protective Services for the county or state. In an emergency call 911.