By Lou Baldwin

Special to The CS&T

PHILADELPHIA – “The Gift of Innocence,” a 20-minute DVD aimed at high school students which addresses the problem of sexual violence against teens, debuted in a program led by Cardinal Justin Rigali Oct. 6 at St. Joseph’s University’s Bluett Theater.

The video was produced by the archdiocesan Office for Child and Youth Protection and the Office of Catholic Education. Present in the audience were religious and civil dignitaries, educators and student leaders drawn from 20 high schools across the Archdiocese.

“Today our teens are bombarded by highly sexualized images and messages,” Cardinal Rigali said in opening remarks. “There is so much at stake for them in maintaining and safeguarding the holiness of their bodies. The danger and evil of sexual violence is real and everybody knows this. It is important that they know these dangers and confront them. This knowledge can indeed help them avoid sexual violence and seek assistance, if necessary, should they fall victim to it.”

The video will be presented to students in theology classes in grades 10 through 12 later this month. In future years it will be part of the grade 10 curriculum, according to Karen Becker, director of Office of Child and Youth Protection.

“The video is distinctive because Cardinal Rigali leads it,” said Father John J. Ames, deputy secretary for catechetical formation. “For Catholics, sex is sacramental. Unfortunately sexual abuse is an attempt to use sex as a weapon. It is not only a civil crime, it is morally sinful. The video emphasizes that those who are victims of sexual abuse do not lose their God-given, innate dignity.”

In addition to the Cardinal, others who address the students on film are Father J. Brian Bransfield, from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Evangelization and Catechesis; Mary Onama, executive director, Victims Services Center, Montgomery County; Delaware Country District Attorney Mike Green and students drawn from the schools.

Father Bransfield, who addressed the topic from a theological perspective, said, “Sexual violence is the attempt to take the gift of innocence,” and “sexual violence moves against our very identity.”

The film presentation was followed by a question-and-answer session led by Auxiliary Bishop Joseph P. McFadden, who oversees the Office of Catholic Education. “Creating a safe environment is the most important thing we can do for our children,” Bishop McFadden said, adding, “if you are a victim of sexual violence please know that you are not alone. We and many others are here to assist you.”

Through student questions and interviews it was clear the program was well received.

“I thought it was pretty good,” said Alexandria Karpin, a junior at John W. Hallahan High School in Philadelphia. She and others would have liked to see student testimonials in the film, but on the whole “it was a good movie,” she said. “Other schools should have a chance to see it. The more you show something the more people become aware and see the difference between moral and immoral actions.”

Jeffrey Smith, a senior at Lansdale Catholic, saw it as a step in the right direction. “It’s the best start we have to move things forward and stop sex abuse from happening,” he said.

Elena McCrossin, a Little Flower High School senior, said “it was very good and it will definitely improve things.”

“It’s important that they show this,” said Michael Fiocca, a Neumann-Goretti senior. “It addresses the situation and I think it should be shown to parents as well.”

Mary Achilles, victims advocate for the Archdiocese, who also participated in the Q-&-A session, noted the new video is just one of a number of programs available to the schools to address sexual violence. Others could include teen victims who talk about the issue.

She believes programs such as the “Gift of Innocence” film are effective not only in helping students avoid sexual violence, but by encouraging victims to come forward.

“Invariably in a classroom there will be one kid who will come forward,” she said. “We are providing them with a phone number they can call for confidential assistance. We are saying we want to prevent this, but if it happens to you we are there for you.”

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.