By Dave Warner
PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - The Archdiocese of Philadelphia, embroiled in a child sex abuse scandal in both criminal and civil courts, announced on Tuesday a new training program for some 24,000 priests, employees and volunteers on how to report sexual abuse.
Leslie Davila, director of the archdiocese child and youth protection office, said the training, based on state law and conducted by the firm Network of Victim Assistance, began on Monday.
It will include 90 sessions in 40 locations through November.
Davila said the church remains dedicated to the "goal of promoting awareness regarding the safety of children."
The Archdiocese, the sixth largest in the United States, with 1.5 million Catholics, is under fire over accusations it concealed the sexual abuse of children by priests in an effort to avoid a costly scandal.
Some met the announcement with skepticism.
Marci Hamilton, one of the lawyers who filed six civil sexual abuse lawsuits against the church, said the training was based on the state's child protection laws, which she said are unclear when it comes to clergy members.
She feared they might invoke "pastoral privilege" to remain silent, and avoid reporting suspected abuse.
Hamilton instead proffered a more direct and unambiguous approach, advising the archdiocese to "just tell them to do it. They don't need any training sessions. Call your local police, and that's it."
But a victim services consultant to the church, Mary Achilles, said in a statement that the training represented a fundamental shift in the responsibility for reporting abuse, from children to adults.
Components of the training include the definition of abuse, indications of abuse and neglect, how to make a report on abuse and criminal consequences of failing to report abuse.
In addition to the six civil suits, a Philadelphia grand jury issued a scathing report in January on the conduct of some priests and the archdiocese, denouncing what it called "rapist priests."
"The procedures implemented by the Archdiocese to help victims are in fact designed to help the abusers, and the Archdiocese itself," it said.
"Worst of all, apparent abusers -- dozens of them, we believe -- remain on duty in the Archdiocese, today, with open access to new young prey."
Three priests, a monsignor and a Catholic teacher are facing criminal charges as a result of the report.
Since then the church has placed 27 priests on administrative leave in connection with accusations, and because of the manner in which the church reviewed them.
(Reporting by Dave Warner; Editing by Chris Michaud and Greg McCune)