Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


New program to fight abuse of vulnerable people underway in archdiocese

By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published April 14, 2016

SMYRNA—Thousands of teachers, clergy, religious women and men, parish staff and volunteers and employees of the Atlanta Archdiocese will be trained under a new program to prevent and combat child abuse.

A national program is being rolled out in the 69-county archdiocese to ensure adults can identify and report abuse of children and vulnerable people, in addition to knowing the ripple effect of abuse on the child, the family and the community, said Perla Freed, the director of the Safe Environment Program at the archdiocese.

An estimated 75,000 volunteers and more than 4,500 employees, priests, deacons and candidates for ordination in the Catholic community have already received training in the past and each received a five-year clearance after their training, said Freed.

The new program will be required when their mandated five-year Safe Environment clearance expires, said Freed.

All new clergy, employees and volunteers will automatically receive the new training, which began in January 2016.

Employees, volunteers and clergy are, by law, mandated reporters of abuse, which means that if they suspect abuse they are required to contact authorities within 24 hours.

The new training is a VIRTUS program, created by National Catholic Risk Retention Group based in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The VIRTUS program “Protecting God’s Children” replaces a 13-year in-house training program titled “You Matter.” The national organization is used in 120 dioceses and archdioceses across the country.

“The VIRTUS programs empower organizations and people to better control risk and improve the lives of all those who interact with the Church,” according to its website.

The program for adults first develops an awareness through facilitator-led sessions and those sessions are followed by additional training to reinforce the knowledge, according to the website.

Crispin Ketelhut, a facilitator with VIRTUS, said the program is self-replicating and self-sustaining because it trains trainers, who then train other trainers until it reaches the volunteers. It presents the information in different formats to accommodate different learning styles. Tools include videos, booklets and pamphlets and Internet training, Ketelhut said. It focuses on the critical distinction that adults are responsible for the protection of children, she said. The three-hour training presents critical information, and in addition, there is continuing training to provide smaller pieces of information to help adults learn more over time, she said.

Since January, more than 700 women and men have undergone the new training, Freed said.

What makes it unique is the program replaces one with online training. Freed said with the new training, instructors and participants engage with each other in discussions to enrich the training message. Also, people in certain positions will be required to complete online continuing education through VIRTUS Online.

The training takes place during a three-hour session. A participant, who must be older than 18, watches two videos, followed by a group discussion. The videos—“A time to protect God’s children” and “A plan to protect God’s children”—cover the impact of abuse and a five-step plan to prevent abuse and report it.

To go along with the required training, the Safe Environment office is establishing training options across the archdiocese. So far, some 65 people have been trained as facilitators to lead these meetings. The goal is to make the training available close to people, wherever they attend church, and at all times of day, from evenings for people who work, to weekends. Classes will be available in English and Spanish.

There is no cost to the parish, school or volunteers to be certified in the VIRTUS program. The training is strict. If a person is late and has missed a portion of the video, they will not be admitted and will need to reschedule.

Most programs train people in spotting abuse and what to do, said Freed. But VIRTUS takes the discussion deeper with its emphasis on the Christian message, and people learn about its impact and how it has a ripple effect, from the abused person to the family and to the wider community, Freed said.

A list of over 100 training sessions in the Atlanta Archdiocese is available online at: