VIRTUS facilitators meet to discuss program, protecting children

COLUMBIA — Men and women who lead VIRTUS classes for the Diocese of Charleston met on Feb. 12 to reinforce their commitment to helping others learn about protecting children from abuse.

All diocesan employees and volunteers who work with children or vulnerable adults must attend VIRTUS “Protecting God’s Children” classes. Participants learn about the warning signs of sexual abuse, how abusers can manipulate children, and how to create safe environments for children at churches, schools and other parish facilities.

The refresher course for VIRTUS facilitators was the first one held since the program started here in 2005, said Bonnie Sigers, safe environment administrator for the Diocese of Charleston.

Thirty-three facilitators from around the state met at Our Lady of the Hills Church to share their best and worst experiences at VIRTUS classes, discuss the emotional impact of the program’s material, and share tips and advice.

Sigers said those who attended have all been facilitators since the program started. She hopes to hold refresher meetings on an annual basis in the future.

Participants said their best experiences at VIRTUS classes included having people praise the scope of the material and become advocates for the courses in their parishes, encouraging others to learn about the issue of sexual abuse and how to prevent it.

They said bad experiences included dealing with people who felt they shouldn’t have to take the course, or who complained about the course’s scheduling and length. Most VIRTUS courses take about three hours.

Facilitators suggested that more pastors and clergy be encouraged to advocate for VIRTUS class attendance in their parishes. One man said a pastor encouraged all adults in his parish to attend VIRTUS whether or not they were involved in volunteer work that put them in contact with children.

“It seems the more we can engage pastors, the more successful the program will be for everyone,” Sigers said. “It’s important to take acceptance of this program beyond simple compliance to embracing the importance of creating a safe environment.”

Louisa Storen, victim assistance coordinator for the Diocese of Charleston, led a session on addressing emotional issues that often arise during or after VIRTUS classes.

Storen described her work in recent years as helping victims of sexual abuse to receive needed counseling and therapy.

“I see the years and years of damage that can be caused by child sexual abuse,” she said. “Shame is often built in. That’s part of what destroys people. They think something is wrong with them.”

Storen said VIRTUS classes sometimes lead a participant to reveal past abuse they have suffered, both within and outside the Catholic Church. She encouraged facilitators to be compassionate and empathetic to someone who might reveal abuse.

“Tell them how courageous they are to come forward,” she said. “It can be very effective when a victim’s voice is heard. If a victim is able to say ‘this is what happened to me,’ that moves people more than anything else. It’s startling and shocking, and it wakes people up.”

Sigers went over diocesan policy about reporting sexual abuse, and stressed the need for parents to willingly discuss the issue of abuse with their children.

She also went over some of the warning signs of a potential sexual abuser, which include an adult who always wants to be alone with children, gives gifts to children without permission, allows children to do something their parents wouldn’t ordinarily allow them to do, or engages in inappropriate or excessive touching.

“No one is interested in fostering paranoia, but we need to tell parents they should know the adults who will be around their children,” she said. “We also need to tell children it’s OK to be questioning of an adult’s action … never shame a child if they tell you about an incident. Our goal is to create a safe, loving place where children are secure and know they are loved.”

Sigers said the diocese is in need of more facilitators to teach VIRTUS classes. A training session for new instructors is scheduled for March 10-12.