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VIRTUS Signaling

On a misguided attitude toward moral evil.


Not long ago I learned that I had become a “safe adult.” This appellation was afforded to me by the diocese in which I reside upon my completion of a mandatory online training session offered by VIRTUS, which describes itself as a “program and service of the National Catholic Risk Retention Group.”

VIRTUS training has become ubiquitous in this country. Thousands of Catholics each year who wish to serve as volunteers in almost any capacity—teaching catechism, running a parish nursery, cleaning up the church grounds on weekends with the youth group—are required first to undergo a criminal background check and then to take part in its seminars. VIRTUS is now so commonplace as to be considered unremarkable, just another feature of Catholic life, like Lenten fish fries or the annual bishop’s appeal. Virtually no one challenges the half-articulated reasons for its existence, or imagines that there could be anything sinister about such a program.

I am not sure these are tenable—I almost said “safe”—assumptions. For reasons I hope to make clear, VIRTUS and the implicit attitude it represents are misguided, an attempt to treat moral evil—sexual molestation and rape—as if it were a financial issue, a question of liability. It commits the Church to the premise that the most prudent response to the gravest of sins is not weeping and gnashing of teeth, not ashes and sackcloth or episcopal defenestrations but the implementation of H.R.-style “norms” and deference to the secular cultural technology of managerialism, with its emphasis on compliance, or, as the good people at VIRTUS themselves put it, “risk retention.” And it does so by implicitly transferring responsibility for the unspeakable crimes of priests and prelates to the laity. (Has anyone ever referred to the “Thirty-year-old mother of four occasional nursery volunteer sexual abuse crisis”?)

Before proceeding I should say that is not my purpose to answer the question of whether VIRTUS “works” (i.e., in the sense of reducing the number of discrete identifiable instances of verifiable clerical sexual abuse). In fact, it is not entirely clear on what basis someone might make such a claim. Many things have changed in the life of the Church since the 1960s and 1970s, and I feel confident in saying that the institution of VIRTUS does not rank anywhere near the most significant—certainly it is difficult to imagine a clear causal relationship between the appearance of VIRTUS and the apparent decline of sexual abuse cases. Either way, my argument is about the program itself and what its existence tells us about the Church and the priorities of Her leaders.

For those lucky enough not to have been subjected to VIRTUS, its all-encompassing banality is almost impossible to describe. A typical training session begins with PowerPoint-style slides that show images of women in business suits captioned “WHEN YOU SEE OR HEAR ANY WARNING SIGNS OF INAPPROPRIATE ADULT BEHAVIOR,” an introductory phrase that dangles in the air for a few moments before its conclusion is appended (in smaller type and sentence case): “Do not hesitate, speak to a supervisor right away.” After watching a video, users are presented with a series of questions (True or false: “Children are the hope of our future and deserve to have happy and healthy childhoods”?). In order to test their knowledge further, they are presented with scenarios in which they are invited to assess the probity of characters such as “Sam”:

Sam is an adult volunteer for the parish youth group. Everyone is accustomed to Sam always being overly physical with everyone. He also takes a lot of pictures of the youth and gives them little gifts, which is very generous of him. Lately, he has been spending a lot of time only hanging around one of the teens, Rachel. Sometimes Sam even takes Rachel out to eat by herself because her family can’t afford to go to restaurants, which is against the Policy. Her family doesn’t mind at all and appreciates how he helps out, because they believe he has good intentions. Are Sam’s behaviors of concern?

This, apparently, is the kind of situation against which we must be on our guard in 2024, the sort of thing that during the last three decades has led to the bankrupting of some thirty-seven dioceses and goodness knows how many billions of dollars in legal settlements. The problem is not the iniquity of the Father Ridsdales, or the fecklessness of bishops who in deference to the infinite wisdom of psychology decided to treat child rapists as a medical type whose delicate condition could be treated at retreat centers with mawkish-sounding names. It is—duh!—the parents, who in real life would definitely think there is nothing strange about the idea of a goofy gewgaw-distributing bachelor layman with a camera inexplicably inviting himself to take part in youth group activities, where teenaged girls immediately take a shine to him and pass along their address and other contact information and willingly follow him on a series of non-dates which their parents (whose sad impecuniousness definitely fits the profile of the average suburban Catholic these days) welcome because it helps them to lower household expenses. To quote Kingsley Amis: “Could they be taking the piss?”

Absurd as it might sound, the “Sam” scenario I read was actually the most relevant one I encountered during the course of my VIRTUS training, if only because of its barely recognizably ecclesiastical context, which is detectable despite the absence of any priests or religious or any even distinctly Church-oriented activity being described. Otherwise, the scenarios I read did not take place in parishes or even Catholic-inflected settings. None involved or even mentioned members of the clergy. Indeed, were it not for the intermittent presence on the website of what I take it are meant to be understood as prayers (“We give thanks for the ability to rise above divisiveness to choose harmony”; “May our work environments be peace-filled, productive and harmonious”) one could easily come away with the impression that VIRTUS was a product designed for public school teachers or social workers.

These implications are not accidental. What they suggest—and for all practical purposes what they mean—is that lay men and women, no matter how limited their volunteer activity or other involvement in parish life, are not only expected to prevent child sexual abuse (about which more anon); they are implicitly invited to consider themselves and one another the primary objects of suspicion. It is up to us to recognize the warning signs of pedophilia, and to root it out by sharing our concerns, both with our “supervisors” (who?) and other “safe adults.” We become the problem, but, hey, at least we get to be the solution too!

After completing their initial VIRTUS training, “safe adults” in many dioceses (including my own) are required to read additional monthly “bulletins.” These documents must be reviewed, or at least clicked on, in order to maintain one’s “safe” status, which is apparently revocable by lay employees. The content of the bulletins is mostly of a piece with what I have already described. But while reading them I could not help noticing that the sphere of VIRTUS had expanded almost imperceptibly until it was no longer even remotely clear what I was supposed to be learning. Earlier I had wondered what the scenarios involving live-in boyfriends and concerned teachers had to do with sexual sins committed by members of the clergy; by the time I had read my second follow-up bulletin I wondered what they had to do with anything: “Talking to kids about safety rules, modeling good behaviors: putting your seat belt on, respecting the environment, being safe when crossing streets—all lead to good practices for kids to follow.”

In some places the language of the bulletins appeared to shift from the distinctly managerial and bureaucratic register I had initially observed to that of the generalized post–September 11 idiom of permanent security theater: “Being a witness for our Faith in many ways makes us first responders to the situations we encounter along the way.” The implication seemed to be that, as Giorgio Agamben might put it, the ecclesiastical body has become a criminal body, one in which old familiar roles had given way to a quasi-biometric sorting process. Those of us who are “safe adults” are not distinguished from others on the basis of virtue or learning or even “credentials” in any sense that would have been recognizable two decades ago; instead we are something like volunteer ecclesiastical T.S.A. agents—Church cops in riot gear staring sullenly at our fellow parishioners from behind the galvanized steel rent-a-fences erected at the behest of insurance companies and diocesan lawyers.

As in secular security theater, there is a certain amount of randomness and caprice to safe adulting. Before departure at one airport we prepare to remove our theoretically fulminous laptops from our bags only to find a T.S.A. screener shouting (with “sir” appended, naturally) that “LARGE ELECTRONIC DEVICES REMAIN IN YOUR BAGS”; on our return journey we confidently approach the conveyor belt with our machines snug in their satchels and hear “LAPTOPS, iPADS, TABLETS, ALL LARGE ELECTRONIC DEVICES OUT.” A few weeks after completing my training—which I undertook several months into leading my second grade catechism class—it occurred to me that my wife, who in addition to teaching at a parish homeschooling co-op has volunteered during the lunch hour at our son’s parochial school for several years now, has never been made to undergo VIRTUS. So far from being a meaningless oversight or the result of varied administrative or other priorities, such inconsistency is essential to security theater. Far more effectively than any consistently defined regime, arbitrariness underlines the all-pervading quality of the semi-occluded authorities while heightening the atmosphere of crisis.

If the Church is now an Agamben-esque security state, the parish priest is literally its homo sacer, simultaneously outside the new post–Dallas Charter ecclesiastical polity and utterly in thrall to it, an object of implicit suspicion, his vocation killable (at least metaphorically) by anyone. It would be churlish to proceed with any discussion of VIRTUS and what for the sake of convenience I will refer to as the “H.R.-ification” of the Church without mentioning its consequences for members of the clergy. Priests in the United States today are aloof, isolated in their parishes or, increasingly, their parish “clusters” or “collectives.” They are, in many cases, frightened almost beyond description of meaningful social interaction with the laity. Surveys suggest that many of them do not expect to receive the support of their bishop if they are ever accused of wrongdoing. The world familiar to our grandparents—of priests’ taking the altar servers to baseball games—is as remote as the Papal States.

All of this was brought home to me some years ago when my son (who has what we now call “special needs”) jumped on the lap of a priest friend who was having dinner at our house. The succession of wordlessly meaningful glances we exchanged—his terror, my confusion and subsequent recognition giving way to a look that said, “No one is going to sue you or the diocese, my severely autistic son is just being affectionate,” his quiet relief—are as meaningful a testament as any to the sheer loneliness of contemporary clerical life. It may well be that we cannot return to the ecclesiastical equivalent of a pre–September 11 world. But it is worth acknowledging what we have lost, and the severe reduction of the scope of pastoral activity—including the sort of activity that once fostered both priestly vocations and the ordinary goodwill toward the clergy—in exchange for whatever security is afforded by my ability to read email updates about the importance of encouraging seat belt use.

Speaking of what we have lost, this, I think, is as good a place as any to suggest that “child sexual abuse” is probably a phrase to which our ears have become too accustomed in the last thirty years. I do not mean this simply in the sense that one would hope that the rot would have been cleared away by now, though that is obviously true. It is the phrase itself—a curiously antiseptic way of referring to acts of unspeakable depravity—that I find if not inherently objectionable at least worthy of the same suspicion that some of us once reserved for “terror” when it became a shorthand for “terrorism,” in the sense of political violence. It is difficult not to regard “child sexual abuse” as a piece of half-conscious obfuscation, a symptom of the same moral myopia it attempts to describe. After all, what are we suggesting when we describe an act—for example, sodomizing a teenager on a consecrated altar—as “sexual abuse”? Abuse implies use. A sovereign who abuses his authority must by definition be able to exercise it in some legitimate manner, just as a husband who abuses his wife could have shown her love (“Somebody chose their pain, / What needn’t have happened did”). The moral logic of use and abuse runs in the other direction as well. A woman who is not a member of a private social foundation cannot abuse club privileges she does not possess any more than a teetotaler can abuse alcohol. What possible use could be put to bad effect or improper purpose in the present case? There is no context in which any sexual act can be performed with, upon, or in the presence of any child. “Child sexual abuse” is a genteelism, a paper cover for crimes we would prefer not to name. But it is only by insisting upon an older moral vocabulary—the language of iniquity, of enormity, of sacrilege in addition to rape—that we will arrive at anything resembling a proper orientation toward the evils I insist upon naming. So long as we fall back upon neutral or clinical-sounding would-be synonyms for the gravest sins, we are likely to find ourselves lapsing into old habits or, more likely, acquiring new ones whose consequences will be equally baleful.

Which brings me to another problem with VIRTUS. Its name is grotesque. VIRTUS is, literally, a parody of “virtues.” In the place of chastity, charity, prudence, wisdom, VIRTUS substitutes compliance, bulletins, slides, training, risk aversion and mitigation, liability minimization, cost control—empty, lawyerly nouns that translate to the morally idiotic assumption that someone capable of molesting an adolescent girl will think twice upon learning about the importance of “proper boundaries.”

Here I suspect that some readers will want to insist that clicking through a few PowerPoint slides is a small price to pay for “keeping children safe.” Their instinct is understandable. Perhaps it is even salutary. But it also reveals a broader misunderstanding of the nature of the problem. It should, I hope, be clear that I am not calling into question the cost of asking laypeople whether it is true or false that they should not volunteer to assist members of the youth group when they change into their bathing suits. Nor am I simply quibbling about the efficacy of such a policy, though I must admit that here I have my doubts. It is the attitude about evil implicit in such an approach that is the source of my misgivings.

Which attitude do I mean? This is not very difficult to tease out. Ask anyone about VIRTUS, and, with an air of knowing sententiousness, defenders of the compliance paradigm will say things like, “We’re not suggesting that everyone is an abuser. It’s more about what to do in case there were ever a lawsuit”—a would-be refutation which effectively confirms my position that VIRTUS exists not to ward off evil, but to mitigate its inevitable financial costs. One hears the same thing from devoted Catholic laymen who are lawyers: “We have no choice here!”

This may well be the case. But it would be a grave mistake to equivocate, to pretend that what by the admission of its own proponents (or at least its resigned defenders) has nothing whatever to do with morality or safety (however defined) and everything to do with the unquestionable first-order principle of safeguarding the financial resources that will soon allow the Church to make an effective transition to de facto health care and pension administrator for hundreds of thousands of non–Social Security-eligible senior citizens. (It is interesting to think that this will be the last form in which the Church is visible to the overwhelming majority of living Americans: a mystical body of payers and payees, one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.) Viewed in these terms, Catholics are not even the cartoonish villains our enemies would have us be. We are simply another faceless business entity, one that exists to maximize revenue while complying with the prevailing norms of corporate governance.

Which is why in closing I should like to propose the following thought experiment. Suppose there were some discoverable normative process which could effectively prevent all future occasions of rape and molestation, at the hands of clergy and laity alike. (What form it might take—further training along VIRTUS lines; a new species of administrative norms; a hitherto-unrevealed devotion comparable to the Rosary; an infallible magic mirror that could look into men’s souls and, without giving away the future entirely, determine whether they are indeed “safe adults”—is not especially relevant.) Now imagine that the use of this unerring means of preventing such crimes would carry a small risk of potentially enormous and unavoidable financial costs, perhaps due to the difficulties inherent in administering it or the personnel requirements, perhaps because its use violated new state or federal laws. (Suppose, too, that there were additional costs—prison sentences—and that the benefits could not be publicly shared outside the Church, or that they were simply lied about in the press: either way “we” would get no credit.) If preventing these unspeakable evils—or even just severely curtailing them, for it is possible that administrative compliance would not be absolute or that sufficient manpower would be unavailable or that the magic mirror would require monthly polishing or simply that some bishops would find themselves spooked by prosecutors and leave off—meant a small chance of bankrupting every diocese in the country, would the Church pursue it? Or would we continue to trust whatever combination of “risk retention” and magical thinking is already on offer, a status quo which reverses the terms of my hypothetical by severely—if not absolutely—restricting financial risks on the understanding that the underlying moral possibility of evil will always be part of the bargain?

Despite what these gloomy reflections might suggest, my “safe adult” status has not fundamentally changed my understanding of ecclesiology. Why should it? Being a self-aware Catholic these days requires, after all, a certain amount of imagination. One understands (for example) that beneath the superabundant banality of pronouncements from bishops’ conferences and unwieldy accretions to the ordinary papal magisterium, there is something immutable about the Catholic faith to which one assents during the Creed. Even though my actual experience of ecclesiastical polity (which obviously began long before my experience with VIRTUS) is the Church of compliance and security theater, I find that it is just about possible to imagine that hidden somewhere—in a seemingly permanent state of semi-occlusion—there is also a Church in which bishops and priests possess actual authority to teach and to govern, one in which rather than being asset managers or accountants or ersatz T.S.A. officials, members of the episcopate are the actual successors of the Apostles, whose commission is derived from Our Lord. In this Church sin is an act of disobedience to God, a privation of the good that deprives us of sanctifying grace and brings the soul to everlasting damnation rather than a negative asset category or a species of risk capable of lawyerly mitigation. This fearful bond no safe adult has the power to loosen.