Chancellor reflects on protection as diocese integrates new program

By Mary Woodward
MADISON – I really never thought of how our diocesan protection of children training affected me until I went looking for some new shoes at a local sporting goods store recently. I could not decide between two pairs and I wanted a young person’s opinion as I was hoping to be “hip.”
Soon a girl who was probably 12 years old came into the shoe department by herself. I suddenly faced a dilemma – I am a stranger to her, should I speak to her when she is alone? And further, who lets their child wander through a store full of strangers by themselves?!
I don’t think those thoughts would have entered my mind had I not been through the safe environment training we are required to go through as diocesan chancery employees. Fortunately the child’s mother appeared and I was able to get the girl’s expert opinion because her mother was fully aware of what I was doing.
Every volunteer and staff member who works with children and youth on the parish, school and diocesan level must go through background checks and must participate in the diocesan protection of children program. All chancery employees must participate whether or not they work directly with children.
During the last year, the Diocese of Jackson has transitioned to a new program, called Virtus, for training and ongoing formation in the area of protection of children. During the week of Sept. 5, the diocese hosted three “training the trainer” workshops for parish and school leaders to learn how to train volunteers and staff in the Virtus Program.
Pat Neal, who has been with Virtus since its inception in 2002, led the sessions in Madison, Batesville and Tupelo. Representatives from parishes and schools spent the day viewing the videos and materials Virtus offers as part of its comprehensive and proactive approach to educating adults on recognizing and responding to abuse of children and vulnerable adults. They also were able to get clarification about how to administer the on-line programs on the local level.

MADISON – Vickie Carollo and Pat Neal, visible in front of the projection screen, led a training workshop at St. Francis of Assisi Parish utilizing Virtus, the system the diocese now uses for ongoing child protection training and formation. (Photo by Father Kevin Slattery)

“It is always good to have someone come from the national office to lead training and answer questions from our parish and school leaders,” said Vickie Carollo, coordinator for the Office of Protection of Children. “We have so many dedicated leaders who want to ensure we provide the safest of environments for our children and vulnerable adults. Pat [Neal] did a great job clarifying how the program can be administered and how to facilitate training for volunteers and staff on the local level,” Carollo added.
Bishop Joseph Kopacz was familiar with the Virtus program from his time in the Diocese of Scranton. He attended part of the session in Madison and stressed the importance and effectiveness of Virtus.
“Bishop Kopacz now serves on the U.S. Bishops’ Committee for the Protection of Children, so he is very invested in the success of our diocesan program,” said Carollo.
According to Crispin Montelione, Associate Director of the Virtus Programs, “Virtus was created and piloted before our country really realized there was a sexual abuse problem as pervasive as it was and before the 2002 sex abuse scandal in the church erupted culminating in the Bishops’ Charter via the USCCB meeting in Dallas in June of that year.
“This is important because a lot of people assume that the program was reactionary, and in response to the ‘sex abuse crisis.’ But, the program was created and piloted due to the concern of a board chairman before the world realized there was a crisis as pervasive as it was. Monsignor Kevin McCoy noted that sexual abuse existed and asked the board what we could do about it – and everything took off from there.”
“Virtus was the first proactive program geared toward educating adults on how to protect children. Everything else at the time was focused on training children as the primary protectors of themselves,” said Montelione. “Instead, we train the adults as the primary protectors, and we also train children to learn about how to protect themselves when caring adults are not around.”
The program has trained more than three million individuals through 255,376 training sessions since January 2002, and is becoming more and more international. Within the U.S. Church, VIRTUS has 140 diocesan and eparchial relationships out of the 196 Catholic arch/dioceses and eparchies, in addition to other independent Catholic institutions in the U.S. A neat fact, in 2016, VIRTUS Online had almost four million website visits from people in 172 countries and every continent except Antarctica.
According to Carollo, approximately 15,000 individuals have been screened and participated in training during the past 14 years. She sees Virtus as an extremely positive initiative for the diocese in its constant efforts to protect children in any environment and to educate adults on being more aware of and able to recognize abuse of children and how to respond.
One of the key formational aspects of the program are the monthly online bulletins. Reminders to read for each bulletin are emailed monthly to everyone in our diocesan database. The bulletins address a wide array of topics such as online pornography, neglect as a form of abuse and how to recognize it, and abuse of the elderly. Each bulletin has a question at the end to be answered and submitted online.
Reading these bulletins caused me to pause before approaching the child without her mother or father around. It is through these bulletins that I have become more aware of the surroundings when I go to my nieces’ and nephews’ events. It is amazing how much more aware I am of possible risks.
We all have a responsibility to protect our children in every arena of society. The Virtus program is a well-designed process to help us do just that. For more information visit the Virtus web site at

(Mary Woodward is the chancellor for the Diocese of Jackson.)