Joseph Staniunas, Special to The Catholic Virginian

According to Sue Ellerbrock, some people still seem surprised there is a program that instructs participants on how to protect children from sexual abuse.

The director of religious education for St. Mary, Blacksburg and St. Jude, Radford, Ellerbrock supervises the VIRTUS program in those parishes. She and two facilitators teach dozens of people each year what to look for so that children do not become victims of sexual predators.

At first, some are skeptical about the need for this program but, she said, almost all who leave the training are convinced it’s a good idea.

“The majority of people are still very trusting, especially when you come to a church, which is good,” Ellerbrock said. “But it’s still amazing that a lot of people will come out and say I had no idea this was even an issue.”

VIRTUS training is required for clergy and all employees of the Diocese of Richmond, as well as anyone who may come in contact with children at a parish, e.g., teachers, preschool aides, catechists, custodians. Since 2004, the year VIRTUS was introduced in the Richmond Diocese, almost 55,000 people have gone through the program, according to Maryjane Fuller, diocesan director, Safe Environment/director, Human Resources.

The program helps participants recognize the signs of child sexual abuse, shows them how offenders may “groom” vulnerable children to become victims, and suggests steps they can take to make sure something doesn’t happen. Those taking the course also learn the proper way to give children the hugs they sometimes need, and to never leave a child alone at church.

“It’s just one of those things that you have to be aware of,” Ellerbrock said. “You can’t lock the church all the time or always control who’s here; people are coming and going.”

A mother and daughter team lead some of the training sessions. Anna Kambach, a third-grade public school teacher, has been a VIRTUS group leader at St. Mary and St. Jude for the last five years, as has her mother Susan Semanic, a school psychologist.

“The greatest impact I have seen is an increased awareness of what abuse can look like, what the lasting impacts of abuse are, and how predators are often well-known members of the community,” Kambach said in response to an email question.

Semanic said she got involved by volunteering at a Vacation Bible School. She’s also active in children’s ministries, such as the children’s Liturgy of the Word. Their church work and educational backgrounds made them excellent fits for the role.

“When we first started…the VIRTUS program only slightly touched on how technology can be used to lure children,” Kambach noted. “This is by far one of the topics that’s discussed most at our trainings. We teach that these things can be scary, just like sending your child out in the real world daily, but that we adults can help protect children and teach them some of the warning signs as well.”

A typical session involves watching and responding to videos. The group hears from convicted predators and from victims. Kambach and her mother said that as they’ve become more experienced they’ve let the participants guide the discussions. They say the group gets more out of it and it makes them feel more invested in the program.

“Since many of our participants are required to attend, we want to make sure they’re willing to use the program in their practice, not just check it off their to-do list,” she said. “Children’s safety is too important to not take this seriously!”

Everyone who completes the course gets a monthly email prompt to sign into the VIRTUS website — www.virtus.org — for a training update. Online training is available, and Ellerbrock expects it may become more common, which could be a big help to parishes in remote areas.

The next class at St. Mary isn’t scheduled yet, but Ellerbrock said it will probably be sometime in mid-May. She said it can be hard to watch the course materials again and again, to hear the tragic stories, but she thinks it gives the community a sense of protection, and tells parishioners that children are highly valued.

“If it hadn’t been for the courage of the victims and survivors, we wouldn’t be where we are today,” Fuller said. “It’s been our road map, and it really works.”

VIRTUS came out of a national forum with prominent experts from a variety of disciplines in March 1998. The meeting, under the auspices of the National Catholic Risk Retention Group, was held in response to clergy sex abuse.

Fuller said she has no doubt that it has helped all of the 105 dioceses that use it to heal from that scandal, and that it will continue to ensure children are always protected.

Ronald Portal and Adam Putthoff, students at Portsmouth Catholic Regional School, plant blue pinwheels to symbolize child abuse prevention. Students in PK-3 through eighth grade, along with the faculty and staff, gathered outside the school on Wednesday, April 11, to pray for God’s children as part of their Child Abuse Prevention Month observance. (Photo/Mary Ellen Paul)

Editor’s note: Further information about VIRTUS in the Diocese of Richmond is available by contacting Fuller at mfuller@richmonddiocese.org.