Interest among archdiocesan parishioners in preventing child sexual abuse has not waned since the U.S. bishops issued their Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People ten years ago.

In fact, the ninth VIRTUS facilitator training, held Jan. 26-27 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels conference center, was a record breaker with 112 clergy, school and catechetical staff and volunteer parishioners in attendance learning how to present the “Protecting God’s Children” awareness sessions to groups of adults.  

The efforts of these dedicated VIRTUS facilitators, now numbering 550, have been so successful in raising awareness of how to prevent child sexual abuse by clergy, parish staff and volunteers who interact with children that a paradigm shift has occurred in the way people think about this societal problem, according to Joan Vienna, VIRTUS master trainer and archdiocesan director of the Office of Family Life.

“We would not be talking about this today if the clergy sexual abuse crisis had not taken place,” said Vienna at the Jan. 26 facilitator training. “This is a societal problem. It’s a church problem, yes, but this is in families in our community. We are asking you to be the eyes, ears and voice of children everywhere.”

Noting that it usually takes 15 years for a new idea or change to become “institutionalized” with 50 percent implementation, Vienna pointed out that archdiocesan Safeguard the Children programs have reached the “traditionalized” phase of 80 percent parish compliance in only seven years. 

From the establishment of the first pilot Safeguard the Children parish committees in 2002, archdiocesan child protection programs have grown to encompass many educational initiatives, including the VIRTUS “Protecting God’s Children” and “Keeping the Promise Alive Recertification” adult awareness sessions, and the “Good-Touch/Bad-Touch” and “Teaching, Touching Safety” children’s programs. Recently, the archdiocese has collaborated with the L.A. City Attorney’s Office, which has provided guest speakers on the topic of cyber-crime against minors.

Almost 200,000 parish/school staff, volunteers, parents and guardians have attended VIRTUS Protecting God’s Children adult awareness sessions and more than 500,000 children have been educated in age-appropriate sexual abuse prevention programs. Last year, VIRTUS facilitators gave 850 sessions, training 28,000 people, an all-time high.

“It’s the VIRTUS facilitators who are the people who have made the last ten years happen and made the Archdiocese of Los Angeles so successful in our efforts to stop child sexual abuse,” Vienna told The Tidings during a break in the facilitators training. 

“These people are the foundation, our cheerleaders; they’re the people who understand the vision and have helped to move our archdiocese to where it is today. I think we are leading dioceses across the United States in what we do.”

Co-presenter Jeff Caudill, an L.A. County Sheriff’s Department courthouse supervisor who sees four or five child molesters a week in court, is enthusiastic about VIRTUS.

“When I went to the training at my parish, one of the commitments I decided to make was to become a facilitator,” said Caudill. “We see [child abuse] in the news and it really doesn’t affect us, but I see it every day. VIRTUS is a wonderful program which gives us more eyes out there.”

“I feel it is a calling and I’m willing to commit myself to protect God’s children,” said Luisa Espino, a parish catechist and public high school teacher. “Some people don’t want to get involved [reporting molestation cases], but then we forget about the victim, and that’s our priority.”

Abraham Caro, a 12-year youth athletic coach who shared at the VIRTUS facilitators training how one of his teenage soccer players was the victim of molestation by a high school teacher, says becoming a trained specialist on how to prevent child sexual abuse will be very helpful.

“The title, ‘Protecting God’s Children,’ is so beautiful. I’ve been so much in contact with kids and known so many families, I feel that I could really contribute,” said Caro. “My wife and I have children who are teenagers now, and we feel it’s time to give back and share with others.” 

Caro was among several men in attendance, including Paul Amuchie, a St. Eugene parishioner and national consultant for the Nigerian apostolate in Washington, D.C. “This training is very necessary because we take things for granted certain times, so bringing awareness to the community is very important [as] we don’t want to take any chances. 

Oscar McBride, an Orange County-based representative from the Institute for Educational Initiatives at the University of Notre Dame, said attending the VIRTUS training reinforced the safe environment practices promoted in the university’s “Play Like A Champion Today Sports as Ministry Initiative (SAM).

“We teach that coaching is a ministry and within that, there are safe environment practices that are absolutely critical,” said McBride, who noted that Vienna authored some of the materials they use at Play Like a Champion Today training, offered locally to CYO coaches and Catholic high school coaches.

“We’re partners working together,” said Vienna.

{gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2012/0210/virtus/{/gallery}