In 1983, the United States designated April as Child Abuse Prevention Month, a cause that our Diocese is committed to year round by providing safe environments and fostering continuous improvement in every organization that sponsors activities or provides services to children and youth.
In accordance with the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People – established in June 2002 by Bishops across the nation – the Diocese works to ensure the protection of children through a series of workshops, educational materials, background checks, and the implementation of a Diocesan Code of Conduct, which outlines acceptable and unacceptable behavior for all clergy, employees and volunteers.
Perhaps most notably is the VIRTUS “Protecting God’s Children” adult training workshops, which increases awareness of potentially harmful situations by teaching signs of grooming/predation and how to respond to and report allegations of abuse. The training is required for all clergy, diocesan employees and volunteers, all of whom must go through a recertification every five years with online modules.
“Since beginning the VIRTUS program in 2003, over 26,000 adults have received training,” said Joan Altmeyer, the Safe Environment Director at the Diocese. “We have 23 facilitators who are current with Protecting God’s Children 4.0, nine of whom can train in both English and Spanish.” The training is also offered online in Vietnamese and Korean.
Miguel Gutierrez, a parishioner from St. Augustine Church in Thomasville, has been a VIRTUS training facilitator for over a decade, teaching it in both English and Spanish. “The title of the program says it all: ‘Protecting God’s Children,’” he remarked. “It’s really about empowering people and learning what to do, what to look for, and how to communicate your concerns.”
Mr. Gutierrez noted that the feedback from participants is always positive, even though it can elicit strong emotions. “It’s an emotional thing,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that [this] evil exists, but by having a very informed community, including the children themselves, we empower people to look for what is good and true.
Indeed, the VIRTUS program also offers training for children, teaching them about the sanctity of their bodies, how to be stewards of God’s gift of life, and how to identify a trusted adult to whom they can report concerns. Given that 90 percent of child sexual abuse is committed by someone the child knows, the lessons they learn in the training can make a world of difference.
“The information [in the training] is relevant and very effective,” said Mary Pangborn, who has served as the Director or Religious Education at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Kathleen for the past 12 years. Each year, she administers the VIRTUS “Empowering God’s Children” training to students from kindergarten through high school – a total of roughly 200 kids.
She explained that the lessons are extremely important because they touch on relevant issues, such as internet safety and cyber bullying, but also talk about peer pressure, the importance of being careful, and who kids can turn to for help. This year in particular, the lessons are focused on physical boundaries and safe adults. Each lesson is tailored specifically to each age group, going more in depth the older they are. The training provides 6 lessons in total and they rotate in pairs of two each year.
“The families have been really receptive to it,” said Mrs. Pangborn, noting that a lot of parents are glad to be able to go through the lessons with their children since the training is now done virtually. She explained that the parents often learn things they might not have thought about, such as taking their children’s phones away at night or blocking access to certain things on their devices. “A couple parents have come back to me [at the end of the training] and commented on how good the information was,” she said.
The Diocese goes to great lengths to ensure that VIRTUS training records are up to date not only for clergy, adults, and children at parishes, but also faculty, staff and volunteers at schools.
“Everyone entering our school has to come to my desk,” said Amanda Leonard, who has served as the Safe Environment Coordinator at St. Mary’s on the Hill for the past 15 years. “We do not allow volunteers in the building unless they have taken the VIRTUS training.”
Mrs. Leonard explained that she is responsible for keeping the records, ensuring that whoever is hired or volunteers at the school has all the VIRTUS requirements in place before starting. She noted that the training is beneficial because it educates members of the school community about warning signs of child abuse. “And for faculty and staff, with the reading of monthly bulletins, we are made aware of the signs of not just sexual abuse, but also physical and mental abuse,” she said.
Some signs of abusers include taking photos of minors for no apparent reason, showering a child or teen with gifts or special attention, trying to meet up with a child outside of school or church, or bending established rules.
Being aware of these signs, and learning all the information that is presented in the VIRTUS training, is vitally important, as it ultimately empowers people to communicate concerns. In fact, under Georgia law, many people are a mandatory reporter of suspicions or knowledge of child abuse.
“What a lot of people don’t realize is that every employee or volunteer for any church, school or agency of the Diocese is required to report any allegation of sexual abuse of a minor to public authorities,” explained Mrs. Altmeyer. “This includes everyone from parents and coaches to community volunteers and board members.”
At the end of the day, however, we all have a responsibility to ensure the safety of children in our parishes, schools, families and local communities. As Pope Benedict XVI once said, “Like young people, children are a gift of God to humanity, and they must be the object of particular concern on the part of their families, the church, society and governments, for they are a source of hope and renewed life.”
Jesus himself spoke to this, advocating for the importance of protecting children, telling his disciples, “Let the children come to me; do not prevent them, for the kingdom belongs to such as these” (Mark 10:14).
To that end, here are five things parents can do to help protect their children, as outlined by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops:
1. Develop loving and appropriate relationships with your children
2. Teach your children safety
3. Know who has access to your children
4. Learn the warning signs of abuse
5. Trust your instincts
After all, that’s what Child Abuse Prevention Month is about: educating, informing and encouraging communication.
To learn more about the warning signs of abusers or for more resources and information, please visit www.diosav.org/offices/child-and-youth-protection.