TRUMBULL—“Most of us think that these things happen somewhere else…but it happened to my family, and it can happen to anyone,” a survivor shared her story of her experience with abuse at a young age.
The Office of Safe Environments held a VIRTUS training session on Thursday, August 23rd for about 40 school employees who are new to the diocese and other volunteers from 2-5 pm at St. Catherine of Siena in Trumbull.
Three abuse survivors each gave a testimony about their experience with abuse and were available to answer questions.
“What we have in place is so important…especially because of what is going on now…” said Erin Neil, the Director of Safe Environments for the Diocese of Bridgeport.
In light of recent events, the testimonies of these survivors stood as a powerful message for all.
One survivor spoke of the unexpected and long-term effects his experience with abuse had on him. “I would ask myself why this was happening,” he said. “It had an effect on my relationships and caused problems with communication and intimacy.”
“I am so glad that you are here,” the survivor addressed the group, “when this happened to me, there wasn’t such thing as VIRTUS.”
“What you are going to see is very necessary because your environment is only as safe as you and I make it,” the survivor said that it is training sessions like this that will make sure that what happened to him is minimized as much as humanly possible.
Another survivor shared, “My vulnerability was my abusers’ access key…” She explained that she wondered who was going to believe her if she ever came forward to tell her story.
“God was and still is the center of my life,” she assured, “God did everything He could to keep me in the palm of His hand.”
She encouraged the group to watch for warning signs and clues of abuse. “Allow yourself to be the eyes, ears, and mouthpiece for these children…they may not have the courage to speak up themselves.”
“You are the person that a child is going to trust and come to in a situation like this,” the survivor let the group know of the importance of awareness.
“When a child has the courage to tell us something that is going on, our only reaction should be ‘I believe you and it’s not your fault’,” said Deacon John DiTaranto, Safe Environment Program Assistant and presenter of the session, encouraging the group of the importance of listening to the victims and being their advocates.
When asked what a helpful thing one can say when a victim comes forward to report abuse, one survivor told the group of the importance of encouraging the affected that they are personally there to help them and that there is hope for them in a seemingly hopeless situation.
DiTaranto explained the purpose of training sessions such as this one, saying, “Our program is called Safe Environments because our focus is to be aware that a child should never be allowed to be in this vulnerable position…because if a predator does not have access to a child, they can’t abuse a child.”
A mother of a survivor shared her heartfelt testimony, describing the warning signs her son displayed, which at the time were attributed to his diagnosis of ADHD. She noticed he was withdrawn and angry, had personality and attitude changes, problems with relationships, and wasn’t the same fun-loving boy she once knew.
As an adult, her son eventually died of an accidental overdose about two years after sharing about the abuse he experienced as a child.
“Maybe we could have helped him if we had the VIRTUS program at the time…” she said, “maybe if this was shown to students and teachers, this would not have happened. Sexual abuse can happen to anyone…it is important to be aware and to know the warning signs. ”
When given the opportunity to share some thoughts, attendees of the training session made the point that one needs to be mindful of what they are saying to kids, and marveled at the courage that it takes for victims to come forward.
DiTaranto commented that the Diocese of Bridgeport has a Bishop who is very focused on healing… “We have the programs to go forward,” he stated.
He also explained that the Office of Safe Environments goes to all of the Diocesan schools every year and conducts a “Think First and Stay Safe” program, which gives guidelines for personal safety, respectful behavior and tells children what they should do if they are in a situation in which they are uncomfortable.
There are three aspects of the Safe Environments program: participating in a training session, being aware that there are policies and procedures in place, what these are and the zero tolerance there is for any breach of procedure, and the need to submit to a background check.
VIRTUS training sessions are conducted by the Office of Safe Environments and are mandatory for anyone working or volunteering in the Diocese of Bridgeport. For questions or concerns relating to Safe Environments, Background Checks, VIRTUS Awareness Training, Resources for Victims of Abuse or Mandated Reporting, please contact Erin Neil, L.C.S.W., Director of Safe Environments at 203.416.1406 or firstname.lastname@example.org.