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Inside a Catholic how-not-to-molest-children class

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John Pilmaier (R) and Barbara Blaine (L) of th...

Image by AFP via Daylife

As you might have heard, the Catholic Church and its pope are in a bit of pickle over new allegations about priests who abused children, and how the church covered up and/or ignored that activity. Of course, this has been a sensitive topic for some time now. How sensitive, I got to see first-hand in 2007 when I was required, in order to coach my son’s fourth-grade Catholic school basketball team, to sit in on special training that was supposed to teach us how to make sure none of the kids on our team were abused, and how not to make sure we put ourselves in a position to be accused falsely of being an abuser.

I wrote the following post Jan. 7, 2009, for my old WordPress blog. I’m bringing it back because it will give you an idea of how some of the most loyal Catholics are dealing with the church’s pedophile problems, and how the church itself is in ass-covering legal mode to the point it’s treating the laity like they were the abusers. Also, because even though my family isn’t Catholic anymore, I’m still getting emails telling me there’s a new online refresher course for my special training.

If you are coaching a team at a Catholic school, or working with children there in any capacity, more than likely you have to go through something called VIRTUS training. Or as I call it, How Not to Molest Children.

I went through VIRTUS two years ago before coaching my son’s fourth-grade basketball team, and my wife went through it this year to teach first-grade CCD (stands for Confraternity of Catholic Doctrine — I had to look that up). I haven’t coached in a Catholic environment since then — the end of that year, we transferred our kids from Catholic to public school — but I still get emails updating me to online training, which I have to keep up with in case I ever do. The latest one came today, which I why I’m writing about VIRTUS now.

The major unvirtuous, if that’s a word, cloud over VIRTUS training is that it was designed by the National Catholic Risk Retention Group — the ones who provide the church insurance to cover costs associated with those pesky priest-molestation lawsuits. Like any corporate lawsuit prevention training, it focuses as much on how not to get in trouble as it does helping the actual, you know, children. It talks about ways to prevent yourself from being falsely accused. And when you go for your two-hour training, one of your first thoughts — well, it certainly was mine — was, why are we here? As I recall, it was clergy that was the problem, not the fourth-grade basketball coaches.

After two hours in the auditorium-like, tiled basement of St. Bede the Venerable in Chicago’s Scottsdale neighborhood, my feelings changed from cynicism to sadness. As easy as it is to joke about diddling priests, it was heartbreaking to the depths to which people have been shaken by the scandal.

I don’t mean that they are questioning themselves as being Catholics, or that they are even sympathetic to the criticisms lobbied at the church. Predictably, some groused the media was making too big a deal out of it. Particularly in Chicago, and particularly on the south side of it, Catholicism is deeply ingrained culture, not merely a place to go on Sundays and worship without ever taking off your coat. Being told not to be alone around a parish child, not to give anyone a ride home who isn’t your own kid, not to leave a kid with a priest until the parents arrived — whatever the sound, ass-covering reasons, for these hardcore, lifelong Catholics, this was like being told that we are not friends anymore. The best (and sometimes worst) thing about life inside a Catholic parish is its intense sense of community, and the message of VIRTUS training was that you no longer could trust anyone.

As you might have gathered, I am not a lifelong southside Chicago Catholic. I was baptized Catholic so my then-nonreligious parents could get me into a Catholic school, and I was later confirmed as an Episcopalian. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Now I go to a church affiliated with the United Church of Christ -- letting priests be gay since 1972!] Before I got married to my wife — a lifelong southside Chicago Catholic [EDITOR'S NOTE: Scratch that last word now] — I had priests in two different archdioceses trying to figure out what I was. When I gave the priest my baptismal certificate, he saw that I was four years old when I was baptized and asked me, “This is REAL certificate?” I had no idea passing fake baptismal IDs was such a problem.

Still, I was sympathetic toward people who whole worldview was being rocked good and hard during VIRTUS training. Here we all were, wanting to do good by coaching or teaching kids, and we were being treated as potential molesters first, eyes and ears to potential molestation by others second, and maybe good-hearted people third. The pastor of St. Bede knew the vibe. He had been installed there not long after word broke that the Chicago Archdiocese had reached settlements for molestation by priests, including one who had served at St. Bede. Meanwhile, another former St. Bede priest was already in jail. The new priest, who seemed to me a genuinely nice guy, said a few parishioners greeted him by asking, to his face, if he was a child molester, too.

Guarding against child predators isn’t only a Catholic problem or concern, of course. Everywhere I’ve coached, I’ve had to fill out a form for a police background check. There are too many memories of kid-friendly coaches who turned out to be not so friendly. Heck, just run a quick Google News search and you’ll see it still happens, despite all the precautions. That’s why VIRTUS training exists. Yes, it tries to prevent child predators from entering the system or if they do, from getting out of hand. But it also exists to say to parents, don’t sue us — we tried.

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