Prevention Group's 'Mistake': Ordering Secular Holiday Messages

MOODUS, Conn. — Father Gregoire Fluet was confused.

Something that appeared on a Catholic-based program's Web site was encouraging him to make Christmas a secular holiday.

Father Fluet, the pastor of St. Bridget of Kildare Church in Moodus, Conn., was on the Internet several days before Christmas, reading a bulletin that appeared on www.virtus.org.

Virtus, which derives from Latin and means moral strength and excellence, is a brand name for best-practiced programs designed to prevent wrongdoing within religious organizations. The National Catholic Risk Retention Group created the programs, including Protecting God's Children, which helps people who work with children recognize, prevent and report sex abuse.

Almost 80 archdioceses and dioceses, including Father Fluet's, the Diocese of Norwich, are in the process of implementing Protecting God's Children as a way to meet the mandate set by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to protect children from sexual abuse.

The following is some of what Father Fluet read in the bulletin under the headline “Holidays Provide Opportunity to Reinforce Antidiscrimination Policies” in the “Best Management Practices” section of the Web site:

“Review your usual holiday display and revise it to be more secular or inclusive. Have an office holiday (or end-of-year) party, not necessarily a Christmas party. Give end-of-year-bonuses rather than Christmas bonuses. If your organization answers the telephone with a holiday greeting, use ‘happy holidays’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas.’“

The bulletin also says the holiday season is an appropriate time to take a refresher course on the federal Title VII's prohibitions against religious discrimination or harassment along with an organization trying to accommodate an employee's religious beliefs.

Father Fluet said he is not “a troublemaker” and he “fully supports” Virtus, saying it's an “excellent” program that makes up “one component of the answer that we need to have about a very, very serious situation.”

But getting advice to take Christ out of Christmas went a bit too far for him.

“I've got a problem with someone telling me to make my celebration of Christmas secular,” he said. “I have a problem with that. Period.”

Father Fluet wasn't the only one who complained, but he was one of a few. Fewer than 15 other people did as well, according to Jack McCalmon, director of Virtus’ programs and services.

He explained that the “Best Management Practices” bulletin is not a core part of Virtus’ curriculum but a free bonus section that is written broadly for the majority of American workplaces.

The organization that supplies the bulletins, the Agos Group, also does a lot of work for secular organizations.

“It was a mistake,” he said, to have sent this bulletin to be read by people who work for Catholic organizations.

To prevent it from occurring again, McCalmon said an editorial board will review the articles that go out to the Catholic community and a notice stating that the bulletins are meant for the workplace in general will be added.

Virtus tries to make sure its programs are consistent with the teachings of the Church, he said.

“If we're going to quote canon law, we're going to bring in a canon lawyer,” he said. “If we're going to deal with things dealing with spirituality, a lawyer wouldn't write it. We would get a priest to write it, or we would have at least a priest look at it.”

In an apology that appeared on Virtus’ Web site, Jeff Lester, managing editor of the site, emphasized the importance of the birth of Jesus Christ.

“[It] is a founding event in the formation of our beliefs,” Lester wrote. “Therefore, in a Catholic environment, the message ‘Merry Christmas’ is not only expected but encouraged and, frankly, required. After all, the message of Jesus Christ is our mission and our purpose for existing as a Church.”

Carlos Briceño writes from Seminole, Florida.

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