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Notes and comment from readers.


Matthew Walther takes aim (“VIRTUS Signaling,” Easter 2024) at one of American Catholics’ favorite punching bags: VIRTUS, a safe environment training program for clergy, staff, and volunteers who work with children. Walther takes the position that VIRTUS and similar programs are “security theater” and that they harm the ministry of priests and annoy the laity solely in order to prevent lawsuits while doing nothing to prevent the moral evil of child sexual abuse. I am a “safe adult” too, and have been for twenty years; I disagree with both claims.

Regarding the first claim, the Church is still grappling with the sexual abuse crisis and the corresponding lack of trust because, in 2002 and again in 2018, it became clear that clergymen were in the habit of looking the other way for their friends. Walther seems to do the same thing, suggesting that if the priest visiting his home for dinner were to gently put his son down after the child crawled into his lap (which is all VIRTUS would “require”), that would somehow be a “severe reduction of the scope of pastoral activity.” Or that asking some of the dads to go to the ballpark along with the priest and the altar servers would be devastating for the community. While it is tragic that good priests have to bear the cross laid on them by their wayward brothers, that is, in fact, what they must do. And while some bishops may see VIRTUS as simply a way to mitigate financial liability, I believe that the majority see this training as a step toward preventing a tremendous evil. Most bishops have met abuse survivors.

As for the second claim, the John Jay report of 2011 noted that sexual abuse is a crime of opportunity. As such, the report points out ways to reduce the risk. Three of them are to increase the effort (make it harder to abuse someone without anyone else noticing), increase the risks (make it more likely an abuser will be caught), and remove excuses (an abuser can’t say he didn’t know). These are three things that VIRTUS training does well. It puts up barriers to deter abusers and asks innocent people to pay more attention. It is reasonable to believe that the training has made a difference.

The attitude Walther expresses in his piece is reminiscent of my time in Communion and Liberation years ago. The community then was notably uninterested in rules of this sort, with some members scoffing about safe environment training. Imagine my lack of surprise when it turned out that one of the leaders—the leader of the movement in the U.S., no less—allegedly abused multiple teenage girls. Last fall, the community was forced to acknowledge that “if certain evils happened within our community, they did so partly because the environment lacked safeguards specifically designed to detect and prevent such abuse.”

Safe environment training is a reasonable precaution for any organization that encourages trust in authority, especially the Church. When you know that predators seek out places in which they can gain power over young people, then you put safeguards in place. VIRTUS does not have to be perfect to be a net good. A couple hours of my time, a click on a monthly email, are not hard to offer up for the sake of the victims of abuse. If you know even one victim, you probably agree.

Sara Perla

Washington, D.C.

I appreciate some of Matthew Walther’s critiques, as VIRTUS is far from irreproachable. But he misses several key facts. First, he thinks the issue is only about clerical sexual abuse. I know of several cases of laypeople doing sexual abuse in church activities (I can’t really go into detail while keeping privacy for the innocent), so I think we should be about stopping all sexual abuse in church, lay or clerical.

Second, many of us aren’t trained in recognizing grooming behaviors before VIRTUS and don’t come into ministry knowing about these methods. The biggest thing I personally felt from my initial training was moving from an odd feeling that I was not sure I could communicate well to others to a sense of confidence that I could recognize clear grooming behaviors that I thought I could communicate if I saw them.

Third, this doesn’t need to make everyone super suspicious of everyone else. In fact, in many cases, it might help distinguish a person who gives me an odd feeling because he is just really quirky from a groomer, thus lowering my suspicion of a quirky non-groomer.

Fourth, part of it is to keep abusers from volunteering at church. Imagine an abuser: is he going to volunteer where the other four adults overseeing these kids have been trained to spot his grooming actions or where that is not taught? Presumably, he’d go where the others don’t have the extra information, thus keeping an abuser from taking on the role. (I suspect a similar thing would happen with any groomer thinking about entering seminary, thus keeping him from entering.)

Father Matthew P. Schneider, L.C.

Belmont, North Carolina

I read with interest the editor’s article on VIRTUS training. There was nothing particularly new to me in it; I have done various permutations of this sort of training in various dioceses in the past, and have thought more or less the same about it. It’s good to see it so clearly written out.

I did want to add two things, however. First, as a victim and survivor of childhood sexual abuse (from family, not church), I found the training frankly triggering. I haven’t heard anyone else talk about this. Second, in my current archdiocese, catechists are required to do a presentation for their students every year about their “circle of grace,” which students are responsible for protecting for themselves (presumably from unsafe adults). I find this frankly reprehensible. The name is awful, and the topic is not one that catechists should be responsible for covering. My thanks again for your writing this essay. It’s always tricky to address topics adjacent to these sins, and I appreciate seeing the discussion.

Marina Lehman

Solsberry, Indiana

The editor replies:

I am not a trained pugilist (or an especially gifted marksman for that matter), but even without my glasses, I don’t think I would need so much as to glance through a scope, or even to look down an iron sight, to “take aim” at a “punching bag,” regardless of its relative popularity. I would at any rate get closer to it than Sara Perla does to addressing any of the actual arguments in my essay. Never mind the fact that she says nothing about VIRTUS’s implicit shifting of moral responsibility for the hideous crime of raping children (as I said in my essay, I think abstractions such as “sexual abuse” are part of the problem) from the clergy and the episcopate to, say, ordinary Midwestern housewives—as if the world had been shocked two decades ago by the Boston Globe’s incisive reporting on systematic episcopal cover-ups of sexual scandals involving ladies’ sodalities and after-Mass bake sales. Perla also ignores the almost painful irrelevance of the actual content of VIRTUS training bulletins to Church life, their substitution of secular jargon (“Adverse Childhood Experiences [ACEs]”) for anything recognizable as moral language, and the almost unbelievable stupidity of their would-be assessments. Allow me to quote from this month’s crucial contribution to the ongoing task of keeping our children safe:

Which of the following statements are TRUE?

A) People and cultures are ever-changing, and protecting children is a continual process.
B) Overcoming harmful enculturated norms takes courage, and it will feel uncomfortable and “against the grain” at times.
C) To create communities that foster healthy relationships with children that have positive overtures, we need to work together.
D) All of the above.
E) A and C only.

As Kingsley Amis once put it: could they be taking the piss? I have no idea what Perla’s opinion of post-2001 airport security might be. For all I know she shares the Transportation Security Administration’s concerns about the unproven incendiary potential of Aquafina and believes that laptops are more likely to metamorphose into bombs when they remain in their satchels. Otherwise, though, one has to ask whether she really thinks that (digitally) mouthing along with platitudes about how “we need to work together” is anything except an attempt at liability minimization so absurd that even its proponents should be ashamed of it. And what, anyway, is working together supposed to look like—with whom, I mean, and on whose behalf? I wonder aloud because a few weeks ago a woman I know received an email from an overzealous parish functionary demanding that she undergo VIRTUS training in order to sit in the parish hall with her young intellectually disabled son. Why? Because the coordinator in question had seen this woman hand a dropped toy to another toddler while engaged in a conversation with the mother of the latter. The absence of this mind-numbing omnidirectional suspicion is not what created the conditions necessary for the crimes of a Theodore McCarrick decades ago, and its presence now will not prevent their being repeated in the future. It may have other consequences, however, such as convincing laywomen with better things to do with their time than endure lectures from professional churchy finger-waggers about the evil implicit in random acts of courtesy to absent themselves from parish activities.

One could go on. Perla’s letter is full of equivocations, including one which I found revolting—her claim that mindlessly clicking a button on a dated-looking website is in any sense a sacrifice “offer[ed] up for the sake of the victims of abuse.” One might as well say that taking your shoes off—unless of course you pay extra for the metal detector line—is a sacrifice offered up for the firefighters in the Twin Towers or that resisting the temptation to remove a mattress tag allows us to unite ourselves to all those who have suffered from consumer fraud. Gaslighting the faithful is bad enough without the self-aggrandizement, thank you.

This brings me to Marina Lehman’s very moving letter. In my own VIRTUS training and subsequent experience as a catechist the phrase “circle of grace” was not used, but it is one I wish I had known about before writing my essay. This preposterous appropriation of grace—“a supernatural gift of God bestowed on us, through the merits of Jesus Christ, for our salvation”—is bad enough on its own terms. But as Lehman points out, it is even worse than it sounds. The clear implication is that children are themselves responsible for erecting and maintaining a kind of moral cordon sanitaire as the ordinary means of preventing their own exploitation. This sounds like—is, in fact—pre-emptive victim blaming.

Of course I do not for a moment suppose that whatever unlettered functionary is responsible for compiling these meaningless exercises had any such intention; all he or she was doing was looking for a churchy-sounding word with which “trust” (as in “circle of”) could be replaced. This is as good an illustration as any of the level of seriousness with which any layman or woman of good character and at least average intelligence should treat VIRTUS—namely, with as little as it is currently afforded by the bureaucrats who have forced it upon us.

✥ ✥ ✥

I’m not a parent, so I’ll try my best not to pontificate about experiences I haven’t lived. But I grew up in the milieu Tim Carney describes (“The Travel Team Trap,” Easter 2024), as did all four of my younger brothers, and, God willing, I hope that one day my own children will too. I agree that parenting seems hard and costly, but, at least from what I’ve seen, that’s because it is. In my mind, that’s good, true, and how it should be—the point is that the difficulty and the cost are worthwhile uses of our time and money.

My parents spent money on our schools, on our teams, and on our training. They drove us to practices and tournaments three counties away on weekends. I don’t think they regret it at all. I certainly don’t. It worked wonders for my confidence as a kid, and taught me about effort, discipline, success, and loss at an early age. I started on my varsity lacrosse team, and when I wore my school’s name on my jersey in front of all my friends, I was grateful for every second of it. Now, I’m grateful that my parents were ambitious about our futures because it taught me to be ambitious myself—not only about my athletics or professional life but also about building “life skills, good habits, and important virtues.”

Those long car rides may not have been family backpacking, but they were great quality time. I can only imagine the sacrifice it took to strap five boys into booster seats and drive a car full of stinky lacrosse gear and crying children to Timonium just to watch the “Bethesda Raptors” take on the “Baltimore Looneys.” Deep down, though, even as kids, we knew how much our parents cared about us. They weren’t trying to live vicariously and they weren’t achievement-obsessed. But they knew that good things don’t come easily, and that excellence is a worthy pursuit. One of the best reasons to hope that our children become virtuous men and women is so that they can be well-formed leaders who drive the world forward with that virtue. That kind of success isn’t stumbled upon; it’s created, and the road there isn’t always fun. It is, however, worthwhile because the virtues and talents we’ve been given aren’t ours to bury. The least we can do is pass them on to our children.

George Messenger

Nashville, Tennessee

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