VIRTUS® Programs Generate Safer Environments for Millions
By Jeffrey T. Lester
Managing Editor of the VIRTUS Online™ Website
The VIRTUS programs continue to broaden in scope and extend in reach as dioceses continue to implement and streamline their safe environment programs. Currently, 85 dioceses and archdioceses have implemented the Protecting God’s Children® program for adults, along with Christian Brothers Risk Pooling Trust. These 85 dioceses are the homes to more than 40 million Catholics, or approximately 65 percent of the Catholic population in the
Of the 85 dioceses currently using the Protecting God’s Children program, 21 dioceses have also implemented or are in the process of implementing the Touching Safety program, our Protecting God’s Children curriculum for schools and religious education. Also, of the 85, nine dioceses have implemented the Protecting God’s Children program for parents, and a number of other dioceses are implementing specific components of the parents program to supplement the Protecting God’s Children program for adults.
As a part of our ongoing VIRTUS programs outreach effort, we
are using this semi-annual VIRTUS programs newsletter to provide you with samples of the types of safe environment materials we generate weekly for our 85 VIRTUS client dioceses and Christian Brothers Risk Pooling Trust. Each of the included articles has appeared or will soon appear on the VIRTUS Online website, our comprehensive risk control platform. We hope you find value in these articles. And, please visit our website at www.virtus.org.
And, as always, we invite you to contact us with your comments and suggestions. From the very beginning, the VIRTUS programs have been committed to continuous improvement—providing higher quality programs and better service each day than on the previous day. We are always eager to do our part to facilitate the Catholic Church in its leadership role in helping end the problem of child sexual abuse and other preventable risks.
If you have any comments or suggestions, or would simply like to know more about our programs, please contact Pat Neal, Director of the VIRTUS programs, at our toll-free number, 1-888-847-8870.
Do Sex Offender Registries Give Us a False Sense of Security?
By Robert Hugh Farley, M.S.
Consultant to the VIRTUS Programs on Crimes Against Children
(Featured May 2, 2005, on the VIRTUS Online™ Website)
Jessica Lunsford was last seen on February 23, 2005, when her grandmother tucked her into bed. When her family went to wake the 9-year-old
The body of Jessica Lunsford was found March 19, 2005, more than three weeks after she disappeared from her bedroom.
Jessica's father, Mark Lunsford, was seen on national television telling the press that his daughter is “home now.” These events are every parent’s worst nightmare.
According to the
In 1994 significant changes occurred in the
Following Megan’s murder, New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman signed the first state sex offender registration and notification law. New Jersey's Megan's Law had specific mandates for active community notification, which ensured that the community would be made aware of the presence of convicted sex offenders who may pose a risk to public safety. Following this, other states began enacting their own state sex offender registration/notification laws. There is now a version of Megan's Law on the books in all 50 states and the
In response to a public outcry regarding sex offenders, the United States Congress also passed three federal laws that require all of the states to keep track of sex offenders. Those laws include: the Federal version of “Megan’s Law,” the Lynchner Tracking andIdentification Act, and the Wetterling Registration Act.
The Federal “Megan’s Law” was enacted in 1996. It requires all 50 states to release to the public all necessary information on registered sex offenders.
The “Lynchner Tracking andIdentification Act” was enacted in 1996 and requires the United States Attorney General to establish a national database for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to track the whereabouts of certain sex offenders and people who have committed crimes against children. The law was later updated and mandates the FBI to establish and maintain a national sex offender database to be interactive with all state databases.
The Wetterling Registration Act, named for Jacob Wetterling who was abducted by a stranger in 1989, was enacted initially in 1994 as a part of the Violent Crime Control and Law enforcement Act. The law was updated in 1998. It requires any individual who is convicted of a criminal offense against a minor or who is convicted of a sexually violent offense to register their current address with a designated law enforcement authority.
The primary reason for the inception of the registration laws is the danger of recidivism (committing the same crime repeatedly) posed by sex offenders who commit predatory acts—especially against children. As a result, most of the states have created some type of sex offender registry or sex offender “list.” This was done in response to the public’s determination to facilitate ready access to publicly available information about offenders convicted of sex offenses. In several states, convicted sex offenders are now listed on the Internet where anyone with online access can learn about their crimes. On March 5, 2003, the Supreme Court ruled that information about predatorsmay be posted on the Internet, although not all 50 states actually allow this data to be viewed online.
Across the states, sex offender registry information is available and the public has the right to see it. But, there is a problem. There is no uniformity across the states in the registration process, community notification, or the method for public access to the registrant’s information. Federal law mandating the states to release information to the public is often mistakenly referred to as community notification when, in actuality, the federal mandate requires just the release of information to the public—not active or physical notification by the police. In addition, not all 50 states require active notification—whereas,
In some situations, the public’s access to the registration list and details can be difficult to access. Often, one must know the name of the individual that one is looking for—while in some cities, one must know the specific police district in which the offender resides. In some states, one must go to the local police station and complete a request form to view the registration information. In other states, there is a fee for viewing the information and a limit to viewing only two names on the list. Some police agencies will show the public a photograph of the sex offender while other agencies simply show a name and an address on a list.
Information that is contained on a sex offender registry can change quickly so that the current residence, vehicle identification, employer, registration status, or other pertinent information regarding an offender may not be accurate. In part, this occurs because some states require that a sex offender register with the local police only once a year, while other states require registration every three months. Also, some states require registration for 10 years while other states have lifetime registration.
Though much of the registry information is based on court records, some of the information is provided from the offenders themselves. Unfortunately most state registry laws rely on the offenders to be honest and forthcoming with the information that they provide to police. Law enforcement has routinely found that sex offenders frequently fail to provide accurate information.
In many cases, the information on a registry refers only to sex offenses and/or certain crimes against children and does not reflect the entire criminal history of a particular individual. Because of this, some offenders have “beaten the system” and do not have to register. For example a man arrested twelve years ago in
Lastly, the sex offender registries or lists have generated another problem that was never envisioned—community-based vigilantism. As the result of an overzealous public, many states have found it necessary to enact laws to protect registered sex offenders from harassment. Specifically, any person who uses sex offender registration information to commit a criminal act against another person is subject to criminal prosecution.
The sex offender registries were developed as a valuable resource of offender information for the police, victims, and the general public. The sex offender registration laws were never meant to guarantee the public’s safety. In reality, no tracking system can ever promise to prevent a crime from occurring. Nor can a tracking system identify the offender’s likelihood of re-offending. Moreover law enforcement has found that because most child sexual abusers have no criminal history, they have never registered at all—even though many offenders may have a long (unreported) history of abusing children.
Take a Moment to Review the VIRTUS Programs Tools
By Sharon W. Doty, Esq., M.H.R.
Consultant to the VIRTUS Programs
(Featured July 4, 2005, on the VIRTUS Online™ Website)
It may have been a while since you attended a Protecting God’s Children awareness session. But, when you attended that session, you took an important first step in learning more about the nature and scope of the problem of child sexual abuse in society. We, in the VIRTUS® programs, know that you are committed to keeping children safe. And, we support you in your efforts to provide ministry to children and young people. So, we’re taking this opportunity to review some of the key points raised in the Protecting God’s Children program.
The problem of child sexual abuse
All children are vulnerable to the advances of child molesters. The men and women who prey on children often believe they actually love the children. But, the damage they inflict is devastating, and the scars can last a lifetime.
Grooming is the child molester’s pattern of skillfully convincing the child, the parents, and the community that he or she is genuinely interested in sharing a supportive and healthy relationship with the child. Through the grooming process, child molesters trap children in a cycle of secrecy. They then rely on their power over their victims to control the children and convince them that the victims have only themselves to blame for what happened. Unlike most children, adults realize that nothing could be farther from the truth.
Child sexual abuse is a great deal more prevalent than many imagine. In fact, studies tell us that one in 10 adult men and one in five adult women say that they were molested before the age of 18. That means that, directly or indirectly, child sexual abuse will touch most of us during our lifetime. And, although we would like to believe that most accusations are false, the facts tell us that children rarely lie about being molested. In fact, they rarely tell anyone at all. In the adult study that told us about the prevalence of sexual abuse, we also learned that 42 percent of the men and 33 percent of the women who were victimized had never told anyone.
One of the most difficult facts to confront is that the greatest risk to children is from people who are known and trusted by children and their parents. Many people grow up believing that strangers pose the greatest risk to young people. But, the truth is, strangers commit only 11 percent of sexual abuse. People biologically related to the victim commit another 29 percent of child sexual abuse. And, 60 percent of child sexual abuse is committed by others who are known and trusted by the child and the child’s parents.
Child molesters look like everyone else. They do not have horns and a tail. Nor do they look like scary people that anyone should know to avoid. Rather, they live with their families in our neighborhoods. By all appearances, they are typically upstanding citizens and leaders within their communities and neighborhoods. They have been welcomed into our homes and churches. And, by virtue of their appearance as model citizens, they groom those around them in order to secure jobs and volunteer opportunities that give them access to children. Very often, they have genuine skills in relating to people—particularly in relating to children. We come to respect them and trust them and, unfortunately, we fall victim to their act and fail to adequately monitor their interaction with children and young people.
To prevent child sexual abuse, adults must know the truth about this kind of abuse. It is only when we know the truth and take steps to prevent adults from abusing children that we can be assured that the children in our communities will grow up safe and healthy.
The prevention of child sexual abuse
Adults are not helpless to prevent child sexual abuse. In fact, there are five steps that adults can take to help create and maintain safe environments for children. These five steps go a long way toward preventing child sexual abuse:
Know the Warning Signs
Monitor All Programs
Communicate Your Concerns
One of the most important ways to assure the safety of children in our environments is to know the warning signs of adults who present a risk of harm to children. Among the signs are:
People who always want to be alone with children. They discourage others from participating in activities and make sure that their time alone with children cannot be monitored.
People who give gifts without permission and then convince the children to keep the gifts a secret.
People who go overboard in touching children—particularly wrestling and tickling children they do not know very well.
People who think the rules don’t apply to them. Not only do they ignore standard policies and procedures, but also they are convinced that the rules of society don’t apply to them.
People who routinely allow children to engage in activities that their parents would not allow.
In addition to knowing the warning signs, it is important that dioceses, parishes, and schools implement comprehensive screening procedures that control who has access to our children. Screening must include written application forms, interviews, background checks, reference checks, and communication to the applicant regarding the Church’s commitment to creating and maintaining a safe environment.
We must monitor all the programs and places where children are engaged in activities. Taking action to assure that there is an atmosphere of openness in all programs and services for children will contribute to the goal of safe environments. Remember that while there are some activities in ministry that other people should not be able to observe or overhear, we should do nothing in our children’s ministry that others cannot observe—at least through a window.
It is vitally important that we are constantly vigilant—that we always observe the behaviors of those who interact with children. And, we must always communicate our concerns to the appropriate parties. Sometimes, this means communicating our safety concerns to our children. And, sometimes, this means communicating our concerns about seemingly inappropriate behavior to those who are in a position to intervene. Parents must teach their children about their private body parts and talk with them about the touching safety rules. They must also listen carefully to their children, and observe both their children’s activities and the behavior of older children and adults who interact with children. When children exhibit dramatic behavioral changes, adults must find out what caused the changes. Being aware of what’s happening with our children means talking to, listening to, and observing them—at every opportunity.
Communication is also important when we have specific concerns about an adult’s behavior or when we suspect that a child is being abused or has been abused. Adults must communicate their concerns when they witness questionable or risky behavior in the other adults interacting with children in the parish or school environment. Communication is essential to preventing harm.
When any adult in the faith community has reason to suspect that a child is being or has been abused, he or she has a moral (and often a legal) responsibility to report those suspicions to civil authorities. Reporting suspected abuse takes courage. However, adults who take a stand for children and make the call are often responsible for saving a child from terrible torment.
In the initial Protecting God’s Children program presentation, the goal was to raise your awareness about the nature and the scope of the issue of child sexual abuse and to begin to shift community attitudes about this issue. Awareness is only the beginning. Reinforcement of the message and reviewing the action steps are key elements in accomplishing the goal of creating environments where all children are free from the risk of child sexual abuse.
Put what you have learned into practice—daily practice. You can create a safer world for children when you work together with others as a Catholic community. Do your part by remembering and using the tools provided through the Protecting God’s Children program.
Evaluating the 2004 Audit of Safe Environment Programs
By Michael J. Bland, Psy. D., D. Min., L.C.P.C.
Consultant to the VIRTUS Programs and Member of the USCCB National Review Board
(Featured February 18, 2005, on the VIRTUS Online™ Website)
In part of the Preamble to the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, the
On Friday, February 18, 2005, Kathleen McChesney, the founding executive director of the Office of Child and Youth Protection of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, released the 2004 Annual Report on the Implementation of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. This annual report is the result of the commitment made by the United States Catholic Bishops when they approved the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People (Charter) in June 2002.
Through the Office of Child and Youth Protection, the Boston-based Gavin Group, which is comprised of primarily former law enforcement personnel, objectively measured the compliance of 194 of the 195 dioceses and eparchies (dioceses of the eastern Catholic churches) in the
According to the Gavin Group, 154 dioceses and eparchies (74.2 percent) were found to be in compliance at the time of the audit; and of the 50 dioceses and eparchies that received “required actions” in order to be considered compliant, 43 of them remedied the non-compliance issues within the required time. Therefore—by December 31, 2004—of the 194 dioceses and eparchies that were audited, 187 (96.3 percent) were in full compliance with the standards the Bishops pledged themselves to in the Charter. Seven dioceses and eparchies (3.6 percent) were non-compliant in one or more articles of the Charter, in which Mr. Gavin stressed: “all of the non-compliance issues do not necessarily mean that children are unsafe, as many issues are administrative in nature.”
In consultation with the Office of Child and Youth Protection, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at
Article 12 of the Charter calls for all dioceses and eparchies to implement a safe environment training program, such as the Protecting God’s Children® program, to teach adults about the warning signs of child sexual abuse, the potential behaviors of offenders, and the importance of reporting child sexual abuse. According to the report, since June 2002, nearly 1.5 million church personnel and volunteers have already participated in such educational programs to recognize signs that abuse may be taking place, and an additional 3.1 million children and young people have also received training. The goal of such training is to develop and assure that children and young people are safe.
While dioceses, eparchies, and religious institutes have paid out nearly $160 million in costs related to settlements, victim/survivor therapy, offender therapy, and legal fees in 2004, they have also paid out an additional $20 million in new efforts to protect children and to create safe environment programs as indicated in articles 12 and 13 of the Charter.
A compliance audit, as mandated in the Charter, does not measure the complete implementation of the requirements of the Charter such as “safe environment training” nor the quality of outreach or effectiveness of the Charter preventing abuse. Therefore, it is important to remember that prevention, education, and healing needs to be evaluated often and in an ongoing manner. Some have asked me, “For how long must we do this?” For me the answer is easy—for as long as there are children, young people, and vulnerable adults.
The information from the compliance audit and the data on allegations must lead us somewhere; yet, this is only a starting point. We can no longer “look the other way” or only ask “What can I do to protect God’s children?” or “What can I do to reach out to those who have been hurt and help them find healing?” The time for asking these questions has passed. Now is a time for action. We must do it!
In another part of the Preamble to the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People the Bishops exclaim: “We make our own words of our Holy Father: that sexual abuse of young people is ‘by every standard wrong and rightly considered a crime by society; it is also an appalling sin in the eyes of God’ (Address to the Cardinals of the United States and Conference Officers, April 23, 2002).”
The full 2004 Annual Report, the Findings and Recommendations are available at www.usccb.org. Additionally, Executive Summaries of each audit are also posted on the USCCB website.
Blogs and RSS: Oh Brother, What’s Next?
By Donna M. Albertone, M.P.A.
Guest Writer for the VIRTUS Programs and VIRTUS Coordinator for the Diocese of
(Featured April 25, 2005, on the VIRTUS Online™ Website)
EDITOR’S NOTE: In recent months we’ve explored a number of technologies that sexual predators use to gain access to children. This article focuses on a particular interactive Internet tool that is rapidly gaining in popularity. So, while sexual predators aren’t yet exploiting this tool to the extent that they are using some of the other Internet-based communication tools, the potential in this area seems fairly obvious. In an effort to provide parents and other caring adults with as much knowledge
as possible about potential risks to children, today, we introduce you to “blogs.”
Just when it seems like we’ve started becoming familiar with the latest Internet lingo, a new term comes along. "Blog" was Merriam-Webster's No. 1 word for 2004. The more technical word is Weblog, but the common term is simply blog. A blog is a website run by an individual or a small group of like-minded people, and is actually an online journal or diary.
Most of us think of a diary as a little book with an unreliable lock, or a secret journal used to capture our most personal and intimate thoughts. Not so with a blog. Online blogs contain reflections, thoughts, rants, or virtually anything the author can think of—including photos, videos, music, and links to other websites. And, unlike the diary of old, anyone who reads the blog can add his or her comments. The concept isn't radical or new. The difference between blogs and other “low-tech” forms of opinion sharing, is that anyone can easily, cheaply, and with very little skill, create a fully linkable blog, in about five minutes.
For a child—mostly "tweens" and teens—a blog can be a great way to express his or her current emotion, whether it’s joy, anger, frustration, confusion, or anything else. But because a blog is an online journal or diary, kids often upload pictures of themselves, write details about their daily lives, or inadvertently reveal where they live, where they attend school, and other identifying information about their family and friends. These mini-autobiographies are out there for anyone to see—and for anyone to join in the ongoing “conversation.” As with Internet chat rooms, the comments can expand into long-term conversation, which can then become a web-based friendship that may include plans to meet in person. And, all the while, the child or teen doesn’t really know who is participating in the blog. It is not unthinkable, then, that sexual predators could become frequent visitors to blogs created by children and teens.
A sexual predator could, potentially, create his or her own blog. A molester could design his or her blog to appeal to a specific set of child characteristics that meet the molester’s specific sexual preferences. Then, like a spider waiting for prey, the child molester could watch and wait for children to visit the predator’s blog. A blog can include a “blogging roll,” which is nothing more than links to other websites. Be warned of the potential for these blogging rolls to link to pornography or to blogs created by other sexual predators.
Blogging, however, is only part of the story. Another tool that’s featured on many blogs is called Rich Site Summary or Really Simple Syndication—the acronym RSS is the common term. In very simplistic terms, RSS allows someone to “subscribe” to a blog and to receive instant notification when something new is added to the blog. So, for example, when the author of a blog posts a new entry, those with an RSS subscription to that particular blog will immediately be notified of the new information—and the “subscriber” doesn’t have to constantly monitor the blog.
RSS has great value for researchers, “news hounds,” and a wide variety of people who share common interests. But, like anything else, those with less than noble intentions can pervert even the greatest technological advances. Let's say a predator discovers some children’s blogs that he or she finds interesting. Instead of having to click through all those blogs on a daily basis, the child molester could use RSS to instantly access the latest information on those favored websites. So, if a child or teen has set up an RSS feed of his or her blog, and if a sexual predator has subscribed to that RSS feed, the predator could wait patiently for the child to add to the blog, and watch for the child to express certain vulnerable emotions. Then, the predator could swoop in and take advantage of that vulnerability, providing a sympathetic ear by someone who (lying, of course) claims to be “a little older” than the child—someone who “understands” what the child is experiencing. So, with the help of blogs and RSS, the potential for grooming has never been easier. With RSS subscriptions to dozens or hundreds of children’s blogs, sexual predators could kick back in front of their computer monitors salivating over all of those potential conquests.
Certainly Weblogs and RSS have an important and positive role to play in society. They are an inexpensive and highly efficient means of disseminating information and getting quick interactive responses. But, be aware of the “dark side” that comes with these technologies. If you hear your children—or anyone for that matter—using terms you don’t understand, then ask questions. Go to a major search engine such as Google, Yahoo, or AOL and conduct an Internet search. Or, ask a technology expert at your local library. Don’t assume that the technology is something you can’t grasp or won’t understand. All you need to know is just enough to keep asking the right questions and to continue monitoring your child or teen’s activities on the Internet.
Copyright © 2005 by National Catholic Services, LLC (National Catholic),
 Oxfeld, J. (2005). Blogs rolling in 2005. Editor & Publisher, 138 (1), 136-141.
 Anthony, K. (2005). The art of blogging. Counseling and Psychotherapy Journal, 15 (9), 38-40.
 “Tween” is a term currently used in reference to younger adolescents—those who are no longer children, but not yet teenagers—and typically refers to children ages 10, 11, and 12, although some parenting websites also refer to 8- and 9-year-olds as tweens.