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Program aims to prevent child abuse in Catholic Church

Saturday, March 01, 2003

By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

ALTOONA -- In a high school gymnasium packed with as many as 500 Catholic school teachers, Sharon Doty stepped up yesterday and said what officials in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown might whisper, if they'd say it at all.

Sister Marilyn Welch, Virtus coordinator for the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, answers questions at a news conference yesterday about the diocese's efforts to stem child abuse. (V.W.H. Campbell Jr, Post-Gazette)

"The Catholic Church is now a magnet for volunteers who would abuse children," said Doty, an Oklahoma-based lawyer, Catholic grandmother and consultant to a program that's supposed to rout molesters from church positions where they could target youngsters. "The reason we're in trouble now as a church is that we opened our doors and let everybody in and said we'd trust them."

Her message in a three-hour program yesterday morning was about educators screening their ranks -- demanding tight background checks, watching everyone from clergy to cafeteria help and knowing the warning signals of abusers.

Maybe confessional doors would have windows, she said in a session with reporters. Maybe the school basketball coach wouldn't be allowed to drive his players home from practice unless he had another adult with him. Maybe schedules would be reworked so that a priest isn't the lone adult in church with altar boys before 7 a.m. Mass.

"Is everybody now going to look at everybody else as a potential child abuser?" Doty said. "Well, a little healthy suspicion is good for all of us."

Doty is a coordinator for Virtus -- Latin for virtue -- a 6-year-old program started by the national church's self-insurance organization to stem child abuse within the church.

The program, adopted by 30 dioceses and under consideration in the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese, made its Pennsylvania debut in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown this week, with presentations yesterday to clergy and educators in the 11-county diocese's 28 schools.

From here, Virtus-schooled members of the diocese -- a diocese hit with a freshly filed clergy molestation lawsuit -- are supposed to teach co-workers, from school volunteers to rectory housekeepers, to be wary, schooling them in ways molesters burrow into children's lives.

"It's creating a safer environment ... no rooms behind the stage left open where a perpetrator can take a child, no situations where an adult is alone with a child. That can't happen anymore," said Sister Marilyn Welch, the diocese's Virtus coordinator and newly named victims' advocate.

Doty's applause line for the gym-full of teachers came near the end of her three hours: "The day I'm waiting for is the day [molesters] say, 'Don't go to the Roman Catholic Church. They screened us all out of there.' "

In 2001, the diocese paid out $1.2 million in damages after losing one clergy molestation lawsuit.

Three weeks ago, it was hit by another, from four one-time altar boys, now middle-aged men, charging that they were abused by clergy and that Bishop Joseph Adamec was part of an administrative shell game to shuffle suspect priests among assignments and keep them a step ahead of their accusers.

That lawsuit could prove particularly unsettling, detailing abuse allegations against 11 priests.

The allegations draw "concern, sadness, anger and outrage" from diocesan personnel, said Welch. But Virtus, scheduled before the latest lawsuit, brings "empowerment ... knowing that you can be included in the solution to the problem," she said.

The innocent may balk, she said. But Welch vowed to stand up to pressure even from, say, the big contributor curtailing his largesse because he's miffed that his nephew has to go through heavy scrutiny to be hired as a diocesan teacher.

"Then we say, 'Thank you for previous contributions. This isn't about you. This isn't about your nephew ... It's about a safe environment,' " she said.

Tom Gibb can be reached at tgibb@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1601.

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