Online child predators, the evolution of pornography, and the changing culture of child and youth protection were among the issues discussed at the 14th annual conference for VIRTUS programme co-ordinators, held August 23–25 in Chicago, Illinois, USA.
VIRTUS is the programme and service of The National Catholic Risk Retention Group, Inc in the United States. It is endorsed by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. The VIRTUS website (www.virtus.org) states that the Protecting God’s Children programme focuses on the “education and training of clergy, staff, volunteers, parents, and other adults about the nature of child abuse, child sexual abuse, and how adults can help prevent harm to children. The Protecting God’s Children programme turns every parish into a child-safe haven”.
One of the main presentations was done by Dr Sharon Doty, Esq, VIRTUS consultant, on ‘Three aspects of grooming: Online predators.’ She explored psychological, physical and community grooming, noting the increased sophistication from online predators as they find new ways to lure children into dangerous alliances. She also spoke of recent research showing the similarities between online and offline grooming, the language types in grooming, manipulation techniques in grooming, warning signs of grooming in offline vs online solicitation, and monitoring challenges.
Other conference presentations were ‘The changing culture of child and youth protection within the Church today’; ‘How our work protecting God’s children has changed since 2002’; and ‘What is the role of technology in the evolution of pornography?’ presented by Dr Robert Farley.
Participants were also introduced to KidSmartz, a child-safety programme that educates families about preventing abduction and empowers children to practise safer behaviours. This programme offers resources to help parents, caregivers, and teachers protect children by teaching and practising the four rules of personal safety using tips, printable activities, quizzes, articles, music, videos, and more. KidSmartz was created by the child safety experts at the US National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children.
The VIRTUS programme was introduced in the Archdiocese of Port of Spain in March 2011, and since then 31 education and awareness sessions have been held. The Archdiocese of Kingston and the Diocese of Mandeville (Jamaica), the Archdiocese of Nassau, Bahamas, the Diocese of Hamilton, Bermuda, and most recently the Diocese of St John’s-Basseterre, Antigua and Barbuda, have introduced the programme.
In Trinidad and Tobago, the programme comprises a four-hour interactive session of two awareness videos, group discussions and group work with the aid of a workbook, and a presentation from the Children’s Authority on current statistics, laws, reporting and resources available for the participants.
Tricia Syms, Episcopal Delegate for the Archdiocesan Family Life Commission represented the Antilles Episcopal Conference at the Chicago conference.