By Kristen L. Byrd, Special to The Catholic Virginian

April is Child Abuse Prevention Month. According to The Children’s Bureau, the number of reports of child abuse rose to four million in 2015. Of those four million reports, tens of thousands were cases of sexual abuse, usually perpetrated by someone the child knows and trusts. With these staggering numbers, what can we do to protect our children?

Several years ago, shocking allegations of child sexual abuse committed by priests severely damaged trust in the Church. In response, programs were adopted specifically aimed at preventing future abuse.

VIRTUS, an umbrella program which means “moral strength” and “excellence” in Latin, was adopted by the Bishops of the United States in 2002. Under VIRTUS, many programs were formed in an effort to make the Church a safe environment for children.

One of these programs is called Protecting God’s Children for Adults. This program utilizes a proactive approach to protect children from sexual abuse by educating adults on the warning signs of abuse and suggesting ways to help prevent it. This training is required of all clergy, employees, and volunteers of the Diocese who regularly work with children.

Maryjane Fuller, Director of Human Resources at the Diocese of Richmond since 2010, has been responsible for the Safe Environment Program in the Diocese since its inception in January 2005. One of her duties is to conduct VIRTUS training sessions, and she takes her job seriously.

Ms. Fuller believes this training is important, saying, “The Church is the Body of Christ. All members of the Church have a responsibility to ensure that children are safe in parishes, schools, families, and communities.” The training sessions include group discussions, activities, and videos. The videos contain firsthand accounts of sexual abuse and feature survivors, family members, and even perpetrators.

Some parts are difficult to watch, but necessary. Perpetrators detail how they got children to trust them over time before carrying out the abuse, and survivors talk about how their lives were forever changed by the trauma, the invisible scars never fully healing.

The videos don’t just highlight abuse by priests, but by family members and strangers as well. “Often I think the public perception is (was) that issue was a Catholic Church issue,” says Ms. Fuller, but abuse can happen anywhere, and the statistics mentioned earlier apply to all children regardless of religious affiliation.

The training sessions also discuss ways to raise awareness in hopes of preventing abuse. One of the most important ways to do this is by knowing the warning signs, such as an adult who always wants to be around children and discourages other adults from participating, gives gifts or takes pictures without permission, excessively touches, allows children to engage in activities their parents wouldn’t allow, and thinks the rules don’t apply to them.

Some steps we can take to help prevent abuse are to control access to children through screening and background checks; monitor all ministries and programs to make sure they comply with proper policies and procedures; be aware of youth behavior by listening to, talking to, and observing children; and communicate concerns: if you notice an adult acting inappropriately with a child, report it.

“The reality is most abuse is not reported,” Ms. Fuller says. Oftentimes children feel ashamed or guilty; they blame themselves. They may also be afraid they won’t be believed or will get into trouble.

“The molester has power over the child,” says Ms. Fuller. Often the victim knows the perpetrator and has been “groomed” over time to trust them. Children also sometimes lack the vocabulary or understanding to explain what is happening or they have been threatened into silence. This is why, as adults, it is important to be aware.

In 2015, Pope Francis said, “Families need to know that the Church is making every effort to protect their children… there is absolutely no place in ministry for those who abuse minors.” Since the adoption of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, every diocese in the country participates in a yearly audit.

“There is a deep dedication to the promise to protect and the pledge to heal,” Ms. Fuller says. There is heightened transparency, victim assistance, and Church members are told to always contact civil authorities first if they suspect or are a victim of abuse, and then notify the diocese.

To date, more than 50,000 people have participated in VIRTUS training programs in our diocese alone. The programs are designed to affect change in both individuals and the Church as a whole.

Ms. Fuller is dedicated to raising awareness through these programs, not just in April, but year-round. She says, “The more we keep the issue of child sexual abuse in the forefront, the more we protect. If we remain aware and know the warning signs, we will be able to protect God’s precious children.”

If you suspect or know a child is being or has been abused, call the Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-552-7096. If a child is in immediate danger, call 911.

(Kristen Byrd is a freelance writer based in Richmond.)