Oct. 23-29, 2003
By Connie Cissell/ SUN editor
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
The Diocese Embarks on its Newest Mission; Keeping Young People Safe
When Paul Ashton from the VIRTUS program came to the diocese to train facilitators for the new Protecting God’s Children program, he brought with him a strong sense of commitment to ending child abuse — emotional, physical and sexual. His talk to a group of approximately 60 facilitators-in-training last week at the Bishop Harrison Center left no doubt to the diocese’s decision to meet the issue of child abuse head-on. He spoke about attitudes and myths surrounding the issue of child abuse, and also sexual abuse by clergy. “To prevent it [sexual abuse] in every realm is our goal. Ephebophiles and pedophiles cannot come back and work with us. They cannot, they must not and they will not,” Ashton told the group. During his discussion on that particular day, the facilitators were free to ask questions. Many of them have past experience in the area of child abuse and brought their own expertise into the equation. There were priests present as well at the training. One of them asked about the abuse of power that takes place when an adult, or a member of the clergy, abuses a child. Ashton agreed that power was an issue. The differing ideas about priests who sexually abused a child one time 30 years ago, priests who sexually abused 17-year-olds, or those who abuse male or female victims left Ashton shaking his head and replying, “A duck is a duck.” He also reminded those gathered that a person does not even have to touch a child to abuse a child. Much of his presentation spoke to matters of parenting and relationships with children. He asked specific facilitators how they raise people up during the course of their work. Many responded that they tried to empower the people they work with by being positive and to remember to apologize when it is necessary — even to children. “We don’t just want people to survive, we want them to thrive,” Ashton said. One simple way to let a child know how important he or she is would be not just to hang children’s homemade artwork on the refrigerator; but to give it a place of honor by hanging it in the living room. It is the small things, the everyday opportunities to share and connect with children that must be significant in the lives of adults.
Ashton looked at positive relationships with children and then discussed signs and awareness of problems of abuse. He spoke about the importance of communicating concerns when one feels an observed situation is uncomfortable. There are steps that can help people address these concerns — talk to the person involved; speak to that person’s supervisor; notify a church official; call the child abuse hotline; or call the police. If abuse is suspected or known, individuals may be legally obligated to report to the police, Ashton said.
The amount of information packed into the sessions is significant, but there is plenty of material available to help supplement the program. Some parts of the program are especially important for all adults, not just those trained to be facilitators, Ashton said. He recommended some steps that adults can follow which included knowing the warning signs of abusers, controlling access by being careful about who works with the children, monitoring programs and being sure the children are supervised, and being aware of what goes on in the lives of children.
Ashton works in adult education in the Diocese of Manchester, N.H. He has been traveling the country putting this program in place for the past year and a half. VIRTUS is currently being implemented in 71 dioceses across the U.S., Ashton said. “Parents really need to take time to talk, listen and educate their children about sex, about sexuality,” Ashton said. The Diocese of Syracuse is well on the way to making sure there is no room for child abuse in the communities of the diocese, as well as the church environment.