by Taj Simmons, Multimedia Journalist
WINONA / BYRON, Minn. (KTTC) — Every Sunday, Southeast Minnesota’s Catholics gather to pray, listen, and learn in the houses of the holy. However, a long, uncomfortable shadow has been cast over the Catholic Church in recent years due to numerous sexual assaults by priests.
Since then, the Diocese of Winona and Bishop John Quinn have made it their mission to protect parishioners young and old and to keep their churches safe.
“We’re doing it together,” said Bishop Quinn. “It’s actually happening that we are a safer, better place than we were a year ago, five years ago. It keeps getting better.”
In order to root out the demons, the Diocese has instituted two training programs: VIRTUS and Circle of Grace. Each one is designed to help those within the church and anyone wishing to join recognize right from wrong.
“This program says that every one of our schools, every one of our parishes, we care for all who are there and they come and they are safe,” said Bishop Quinn.
The VIRTUS program centers on watching real situations where sexual abuse might occur and recognizing it before it happens. From church volunteers to prospective priests, everyone involved with the Diocese must go through VIRTUS.
Immaculate Heart of Mary Seminary students Ezra Lippert and Vianney Nguyen, who both have already taken VIRTUS, say the program is a great way to help the future priests like themselves keep the faith.
“We care so much about the children of the church and the safety of especially children and those who are vulnerable,” said Lippert.
“It allows us to be able to know that these people are going to be helping these children learn how to become closer to the faith and able to know that it’s going to be a safe environment,” added Nguyen.
IHM’s rector, Monsignor Tom Melvin, also finds solace within the program, as he is confident the next generation of priests won’t do anything to harm those they serve.
“What it’s showing them is how to approach people in a very healthy and holy way but also how to respect their dignity and how to really bring a message of love from God to them,” said Melvin.
What about the ones at greatest risk, the children of the church?
For students at schools within the Diocese, they too are made aware of situations through a program called Circle of Grace.
“It’s a two-pronged approach of the safe environment program,” said Peter Martin, who oversees both programs within the Diocese of Winona. “One is for adults and one is for children. Circle of Grace is for the children.”
Similar to VIRTUS, Circle of Grace teaches the children of the Diocese right from wrong through age appropriate methods ranging from stickers to using red lights and green lights to describe something that may happen. Younger students must also write down the name of an adult they trust that would be able to help in a crucial situation.
Students are introduced to Circle of Grace in kindergarten and go through the program once a year. Diocese superintendent Marsha Stenzel says the program not only teaches the church’s children to be aware, but also to build trust.
“It’s extremely important for our kids to know that we are here to protect them,” said Stenzel. “If they are at risk or feeling unsafe, they know they can come to us and we will help them. We won’t question the fact of if they’re telling the truth or not; we’re here to help.”
With these two building blocks in place, the Diocese has begun to build a new future for the church focused on safety, security, and salvation. While Bishop Quinn says the Diocese will never forget the sins of the past, he will do everything in its power to make sure the culture of abuse never returns to the church.
“We’ve got eyes and ears and hearts tuned so that when we see something, we report it so that everyone is protected,” said Bishop Quinn.