Beliefnet
NEW YORK, Dec. 29 - On a recent Wednesday evening at St. Anselm's School inBrooklyn, more than 60 church volunteers, teachers and coaches sat quietly watching a video in a basement meeting room. Subway trains passed beneath the building, periodically rumbling the floor. Suddenly, the room let out a collective gasp.

Onscreen, "Karl," a convicted pedophile, had just admitted molesting 500 young girls before being caught.

The video, "A Time to Protect God's Children," is part of a required workshop for all employees and volunteers of the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn who interact with children. In the aftermath of the priest sexual abuse scandal--in which the Brooklyn Diocese was hit with a $300 million sex abuse lawsuit--the Catholic Church is implementing the sexual abuse prevention training, called Virtus, in Brooklyn and 94 other dioceses across the country.
The Virtus training is part of reforms adopted by Catholic bishops in2002, which include establishing "safe environment" education programs.While Virtus is the most popular, some dioceses have created their own training sessions or bought other programs elsewhere.

Church leaders say the video and training have been received favorably.But they have also sparked indignation, disgust, even painful disclosures by audience members who were victimized in their youth. Victims groups welcome the training, but also say it is fundamentally a move to protect the Catholic Church from financial liability. Others cast doubts on whether it will have much effect.

Rich Birglir, a parent volunteer at Our Lady of Angels School in Brooklyn, said he was glad to see the training in place. "Prior to coming here I would think, `I hope nothing bad happens,'" he said, "whereas now we can do things to prevent things from happening. Now I'm going to start thinking twice about what my kids are doing."

Leading the training at St. Anselm's was the Rev. James Devlin, one of 35 Virtus facilitators in Brooklyn. With Virtus, which is Latin for "virtue," Devlin said he hopes to rebuild the trust that existed in his community before the scandal.

After playing two videotapes that included testimonials by victims of sexual abuse, convicted pedophiles, experts on sexual abuse, and church leaders, Devlin pointed out ways to be aware of potential predators, both in the church and in the community, and how to look for signs that children are being victimized.

Be watchful for kids who seem depressed or angry, he said, or those who seem particularly detached. "Your job," he told the crowd, "is to be the eyes and ears to make sure at all times children are safe."

Administrators for Virtus estimate tens of thousands of church members have taken the training over the past year, including clergy.

Steve Cappabianca, who helps coordinate the Brooklyn Virtus sessions, said some people react negatively to the training. "They don't understand why they are being asked to do this because of what the priests did," he said. In one of their first sessions, he said, 25 people stormed out midway through the training. "It's disturbing, but it's reality, unfortunately," he said.

In October 2002, a group of 43 people filed a lawsuit against the Brooklyn Diocese, saying they were sexually abused as children by 13 priests at various times between 1960 and 1984. The charges were dismissed because of an expired statute of limitations, but the attorney representing the victims has appealed that decision, said Frank De Rosa, a church spokesman.

When the scandal broke, some 20 priests in the diocese were accused of sexual abuse and permanently suspended. It was a time when everyone in the church was uncomfortable, Devlin said, and priests felt like the objects of scorn and distrust.

At the training, Devlin pointed out that child sex abuse was not limited to the church, and credited the Catholic Church with doing more to protect children than most other community groups. "No one is negating the whole sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church," he said. "But if we just look at the church, we are going to miss most abusers."

Devlin said some people have approached him privately in Virtus sessions and confided for the first time that they were molested as children. In every case the abuser was not part of the church, he said.

Basketball coach Lisa Luca said the training taught her how to look for symptoms in victimized children. But the pedophiles in the video bothered her. "I didn't like watching the guys who did it--they shouldn't be allowed to speak," she said.

"This is kind of like torture for me," said Nailah Bateh, a parent volunteer who knows several people who were sexually abused as children, though not by clergy. She called it noble to try to prevent further sex abuse, "but unfortunately you can't change human behavior," she said.

David Clohessy, national director for Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), called Virtus a step forward but long overdue. "It doesn't address the root causes (of the sex abuse scandal), which are abusive priests and complicit bishops," he said.

Clohessy, who himself was a victim of sexual abuse by a priest, blasted the church's insurer, National Catholic Risk Retention Group, which created the training. "Their agenda is clear: limiting financial damage," he said. "That's fundamentally what it's not about."

Devlin, who donates his time to lead Virtus sessions, sees the goal of the program differently. "If one person prevents one child from being harmed," he said, "then I can say, `I'm doing my job.'"

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