The diocesan Office of Child and Youth Protection began safe environment training in 2003, following the sex abuse scandals that rocked Catholic dioceses across the country.
VIRTUS training, a three-hour awareness course that covers all areas of recognizing signs of child abuse and reporting it to the authorities, is required of all clergy, religious, employees and any volunteers whose work puts them in contact with anyone under the age of 18. Every five years, participants are also required to complete a recertification training that provides updated information and a refresher on the key principals of creating a safe environment. The Safe Environment Office of the Diocese of Syracuse oversees the background screening and training of staff and volunteers, and assists diocesan sites with policy interpretation. Personnel or volunteers who refuse to attend VIRTUS or recertification are prevented from working with children, according to Jackie Farrell, safe environment administrator. “If we can’t get a volunteer to give us their social security number, given all that has transpired, then we don’t want them as a volunteer,” she said. “No doubt, this is an awkward topic and there are still those who are resistant to discuss it, but being uncomfortable is a small price to pay for keeping a child safe.”
In 2013, as a new group was readying for recertification, the Office of Child and Youth Protection reviewed the materials and realized a new solution was needed for the recertification process.
“We had several thousand employees and volunteers who originally went through the training in 2008 and we knew they would be going through recertification in 2013, but when we looked at the materials we realized it no longer fit our needs,” explained Farrell. “We decided the best course was to create our own materials. We worked with Warne McKenna Advertising, who created a great video for us.”
The new program is entitled “Entrusted to Protect, Dedicated to Restore.” The video uses actual safe environment personnel and is one part of the 90-minute recertification training session. The stories portrayed in the video, as well as the in-session case study, are based on actual cases handled through the diocesan Office of Child and Youth Protection. Victim Assistance Coordinator Jacqueline Bressette compiled the information, resulting in a representation of the kind of reports and issues she sees in her office, Farrell said. The program actively encourages discussion between the viewers and the facilitator on the topics highlighted in the video and gives the facilitator an opportunity to pursue questions more in-depth.
The first half of the video depicts a story of abuse within one family and highlights the warning signs that trainees should look for when an abuser is “grooming,” or in the process of selecting his/her victim(s). Throughout the video, instructions on how to spot the signs of suspicious behavior are outlined and viewers are reminded of the necessary steps to take to in order to report concerns to the authorities at their location.
The second half of the video deals specifically with internet and cell phone safety and the difficulty in monitoring children with today’s varied electronic options.
“The internet safety issues often result in a very active discussion, filled with ideas and suggestions amongst participants,” stated Farrell. “The goal of the video is to ‘peel back the layers,’ and enlighten parents, employees and volunteers that the emphasis is protecting God’s children from anyone who could be a danger, including coaches, teachers, relatives and friends.”
Currently there are 75 facilitators across the diocese qualified to conduct VIRTUS training and recertification. The Office of Child and Youth Protection provides the video and materials for participants to use and offers assistance to facilitators whenever it is needed.
“We have recertified all our facilitators and each now has the new videos and materials to make certain as the next set of groups reach the five-year recertification mark they are being retrained correctly,” stated Farrell.
To date, over 2,000 people have been through the new recertification and the materials have received positive feedback from users and facilitators. “It’s been an awesome project and one that I believe has increased compassion for the critical issue of safety for our children,” explained Farrell.
Assistant Chancellor and Director of Communications Danielle Cummings is pleased with the new training product and looks forward to viewers’ feedback from training. “We are so proud of the work of the Office of Child and Youth Protection in developing the ‘Entrusted to Protect, Dedicated to Restore’ training video. Over the years, it became clear that part of the recertification program should include local stories and local issues. The training video includes real life situations that have taken place in our diocese and ways to respond. The feedback from participants has been overwhelmingly positive thus far.”
The previous recertification program from VIRTUS was entitled “Keeping the Promise Alive”;“Entrusted to Protect, Dedicated to Restore” is a more accurate statement of the goal of both VIRTUS and the recertification program, Farrell said. “There are many instances that people don’t even realize that can put a child in danger, such as posting team photos on the internet or texts from teachers to students. There are questions on what safe environment means at the parish level and what it means at the school level. The video runs the gamut in explaining as many of the concerns as possible,” explained Farrell. “Training is key, and ownership is good for us to have, but I think we are beginning to turn the corner on the issues of the past by being as vigilant as possible for the future.”
Farrell feels the new materials tap into that gut instinct when something doesn’t feel right about a situation. “Children will know when something is wrong, but for so many reasons they may be reluctant to say anything. It’s up to the adults to trust their gut and follow through on the steps to report anything suspicious. The emphasis is on spotting the warning signs: a program can only help so far; people need to spot the immediate danger.”
Given the success so far of the new video, it wouldn’t surprise Farrell if other dioceses look toward Syracuse as a leader in recertification. “When I saw the video for the first time, it brought tears to my eyes,” stated Farrell. “We are committed to keeping children safe in the future and this video can help so many become enlightened.”