Monday, February 23, 2009

VIRTUS: Making the Problem Worse — Part 1 of 2

as featured on

I’ve run into a few conspiracy theorists in my time. You know the type: the hushed tones, furtive glances, the shocking revelations that demand your immediate action and urgent—dare they imply—undivided attention.

Generally, these folks have in mind only one way the problems can be solved. To the unknowing ear, their suggestions can seem compelling, giving one no time to consider the consequences, but simply to act. The current economic stimulus plan would be a prime example of this—yet that’s not the focus of this article.

Recently, I attended a training session that seemed to have an uncannily similar effect on the people around me. What is it we were being told?

  • That anyone can be a sexual predator
  • That “they” can be anywhere
  • That the real cause of sexual abuse is unknown (and that same-sex attraction has nothing to do with it), and therefore we need to be always on the alert
  • That at the earliest sign of suspicion we should report a person to the proper authorities

After the first of the two videos shown that night, the shock and alarm on most faces was evident. The facts of child sexual abuse in the Church had been handily laid out, and they were indeed horrifying.

Reflecting on the whole of the evening’s program, however, I came to the conclusion that if the Church’s response to the clergy sex abuse scandal is limited to the scope of what we learned that night, it is going to make the problem much, much worse.

Taking issue with VIRTUS

The three-hour “child protection” training course I attended that evening was part of the VIRTUS program established by The National Catholic Risk Retention Group. This program was created in response to the clergy sex-abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, and its primary goal is obvious and good: to protect children from sexual abuse.

The name VIRTUS is thus described on the organization’s website:

The word virtus derives from Latin, and means valor, moral strength, excellence, and worth. In ancient times, virtus denoted a way of life and manner of behavior that always aspired to the highest, most positive attributes of people and aspects of human interaction.

There is much to be commended about the intention to protect children from harm, and it is admirable to see the Catholic Church striving to take leadership in this issue, especially when its scope is much broader than the Church itself. However, I have two main complaints with the program as I experienced it:

First, in contrast to VIRTUS’s self-definition, the program did not raise our minds to “a way of life and manner of behavior that always aspired to the highest, most positive attributes of people and aspects of human interaction.”

Rather, it compelled us to act out of fear and suspicion—hardly the building blocks for flourishing human community.

Second, in focusing solely on the defensive protection of children, instead of incorporating a holistic approach to human sexuality and healthy touch, the program threatens to raise yet another generation of screwed up, sexually and emotionally starving persons who engage in deviant sexual behaviors as a result.

Let’s flesh these out.

God has not given us a spirit of fear

“For Freedom’s sake, Christ has set us free” (Gal. 5:1). Christ came to set us free from sin and we have truly been redeemed. Yet for what end? To enter into deeper communion with Himself, as well as with others. Think about it. Jesus Christ died to restore our friendship with God, which includes restoring the original unity our first parents had with each other before the Fall.

Certainly, we live in a broken world where not all has been redeemed. I am not advocating that we do not punish those who have sexually abused kids, or that we shouldn’t be wise as serpents (cf. Matt 10:16) in realizing how far the pornified culture has affected “good” Catholics. But we must also be as innocent as doves, and instead of creating a culture of suspicion, just waiting for a person to make a mistake so we can crucify them, we must take a more proactive approach.

It is imperative that any program responding to child sex abuse avoid using fear and suspicion as its main motivators. Certainly, we are going to experience these feelings, but for our response to be truly Christ-like, we also have an obligation to love (as stated in 1 John 4:18: “true love casts out all fear”) and to seek to bring the truth of Christ’s redemption to bear on the realities we encounter. While healthy awareness and observant behaviors are important for training ourselves and our children to prevent occasions of abuse, we must always approach this subject first through the lens of love and healthy respect for our own bodies and sexuality and for the other people with whom we come in contact.

Specifically in regard to the misuse of one’s sexuality, John Paul the Great teaches us in his Theology of the Body to avoid becoming “Masters of Suspicion.” I fear programs like VIRTUS, especially when aimed at a largely uncatechized crowd, encourage this dangerous line of thought.

A “Master of Suspicion” is one who, due to his (or her) own experience of concupiscence, lust, and his own sins, suspects the worst of everyone—“If I can’t look at a women wearing skintight jeans without lusting after her, surely the men around me have the same struggles, too.” One major reason for this is that they have only experienced a broken sexuality and they think this is the only way we can view the world. I can’t help but feel that those who had a hand in designing the VIRTUS program are from this camp and thus encourage attendees to see things through this limited perspective.

So many good and faithful priests have fallen under the undue burden of suspicion because of the exaggerated and unbalanced publicity about the clergy sex scandals. These men have been effectively stripped of their abilities to be fathers to the people, especially the children, in their care. They feel unwelcome to interact with children and young people on a meaningful personal level, hindering their ability to be mentors and role models, especially for young men who might otherwise consider the priesthood.

Heightened fear and suspicion, not tempered by truth and love, also increase the likelihood that reputations will be unfairly impugned, causing irreparable damage to a priest’s ability to carry out his vocation—and this applies to others who are not clergy as well.

Fear and suspicion cannot be our primary motivators when trying to rectify this situation. We must always ground our hearts in the truth that love redeems and sanctifies, even in the midst of threatening, confusing situations. We cannot lose sight of this truth, for the sake of our children, and for sake of our society that depends on healthy interpersonal relationships. This is true whether we’re teaching children how to navigate in this often dangerous world, whether we’re in the process of healing victims of abuse, or whether we’re reaching out to rehabilitate—or forgive—abusers.

Next time we’ll look at the underlying causes to the sexual abuse scandal, as well as layout what must be present in any “child-protection” program in order to truly prevent this from happening in the future.

Steve Pokorny, the Director of TOB Ministries (, specializes in speaking to youth and young adults about the gift of their sexuality. Steve has an MA in Theology and Catechetics from Franciscan University of Steubenville, received training from the Theology of the Body Institute, and will be completing his studies at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family Studies in 2009. He is associate editor for Catholic Exchange's Theology of the Body Channel (, and his blog is You can contact Steve at


At 3:38 AM, Blogger Doug said...

"VIRTUS program established by The National Catholic Risk Retention Group...and its primary goal is obvious and good: to protect children from sexual abuse."

Um, "risk retention" means Insurance Company. The program was created with the primary goal of providing plausible deniability and has little or nothing to do with protecting anyone but Bishops and diocesan financial resources. There is NOTHING honorable about it. I would hope that most who require it do so out of ignorance, but after the last 15 years, how likely is that? Oh, wait a minute: I forgot that the guiding principal behind this was "Let's believe whatever makes us look best."


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