Survivors' Voices: Victim Assistance Coordinators, Part 2
As I explained last week, one key reform mandated by the 2002 Dallas Charter is the requirement that every U.S. diocese have a staff member, usually called the “Victim Assistance Coordinator,” to respond to those who have experienced abuse. According to the USCCB website, this person is available “to help victims/survivors make a formal complaint of abuse to the diocese or eparchy… to arrange a personal meeting with the bishop or his representative and to obtain support for the needs of the individual and families.”
Given the importance of this role, I decided to ask members of the Survivors’ Voices Panel about their experience with VACs. You can find the first part of this post here.
Full disclosure: I maintain cordial professional relationships with many VACs throughout the United States, and there are several I consider friends. For this post, I specifically asked the Survivors’ Voices Panel to honestly share their experiences, both positive and negative, and I have not edited their responses beyond minor adjustments to punctuation and spelling.
I've interacted with assistance coordinators for 18 years, first reporting in tears, barely able to speak, then as collaborator in restorative justice initiatives, prayer service development, and exploratory conversations. I've accompanied others as they reported to coordinators and advocated for survivors to coordinators. I've reported unethical care from a priest who accompanied me in the healing journey. I've (unsuccessfully) requested to review my own reports to the diocese. I have been educated through these experiences. No matter how compassionate or what their personalities, Assistant Coordinators are: 1) employed by the church, answer to the bishop, and depend on the church for income, health insurance, and faith. 2) in my location, required first and foremost to profess their faithful commitment to the Catholic Church, and to their bishop and diocese. This conflict of interest plays out in many ways. For example, a lawyer may be CCed or BCCed on email and phone interactions between survivor and coordinator, or conversations may be recorded, without the survivor’s knowledge. 3) sometimes triggered by survivors, may lack trauma education or knowledge, and don't have authority over what they can offer. 4) often diagnosing survivor needs and conditions without qualifications to do so, and offering support based on what the diocese offers rather than real needs of survivors. 5) often unintentionally creating or reinforcing, in survivors, an unhealthy dependency (upon the church) that can trap individuals in a circle of harm and re-injury. It took me years to realize the trap I was in, years to leave that dependency, grieve my faith community, and renew my spirit.
When victims-survivors are heard, believed and treated with real empathy and understanding, there is a different tone, message, and feeling to the church’s response to clergy sexual abuse. I am the beneficiary of this fact. Since I came forward to tell my story of childhood sexual abuse by a priest to officials in my archdiocese in 2006, I have been blessed with 3 VACs who have accompanied me and continue to accompany me on my healing journey, 17 years later. This on-going accompaniment takes many forms: from assisting in planning the annual Hope and Healing Masses, to organizing annual prayer services at the Healing Garden, and more..... I sincerely appreciate Matt, Tom, and Mayra for being in touch with what my needs are, and for walking with me on the journey.
Two years after my initial report, my husband was called into overseas military service with the reserves, and I had been homeschooling the children. I knew from past experience that homeschooling while I was solo parenting was not workable. I had to two options: public school or the parochial school where Father had been made pastor. It was an excruciating decision, but we chose to enroll the children in the Catholic school. (I had reported Father to his religious order first, and they moved him to be pastor at one of the biggest parishes in the diocese. The move was made suddenly without explanation to anyone, a process straight from the corruption playbook.) When I notified the religious order and the diocese of our decision to enroll the children in the school, the order and diocese mobilized in collaboration against me. They notified me in an official letter from the diocese and through numerous emails from the canon lawyer religious superior that if Father was compromised in any way by my family's presence, my children would be forced from the school. Basically, Father was treated as an innocent victim and I was trespassing. It was my responsibility to tolerate whatever behavior Father decided upon and to stay silent. There was no "victim's assistance" in the situation. The VAC was a minion of Church corruption. That same summer the Cardinal McCarrick story broke in the media, so I was able to push back a little bit, but with no advocacy or even basic consideration from the VAC.
When I first called the Diocese regarding my abuse, I was told to call the VAC, the Attorney General's Office and the Prosecutor's Office and was given the numbers for each. When I called the VAC, I was met with a very polite and understanding voice on the other end of the phone. We set an appointment to walk slowly through the abuse. She would ask some clarifying questions, give comfort, offer follow-up time to talk and discuss my openness to attend therapy (which I declined at the time). She did follow up at least twice to again offer therapy. That was really the only communication I had with the VAC. Someone else from the Diocese contacted me regarding coming to the Diocesan Offices for an interview with a board to determine the validity of my complaint.
My abuser was a monk, so I ended up seeing a lay woman representing the abbey, who flew across state lines to meet with me. The in-person meeting I had with her was... interesting. She wanted me to say that I forgave my abuser and was fine with him returning to ministry at some point, and she was fairly manipulative towards that end, saying "he's scared he won't be able to do his parents' funerals." I think she was taken aback by the fact that I had a very thought-out argument on why I was NOT comfortable saying that, and that it wasn't based on anger towards him. She seemed deeply emotionally conflicted by the end. And then asked me and my husband for a ride to the airport afterwards which was extremely awkward but also very funny in retrospect.
I’ve heard so many bad things about how VACs treated other survivors that I end up with a panic attack every time I even THINK about directly contacting them.
If you have experienced sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, I would be grateful to include your perspective in future posts. You can find information about joining the Survivors’ Voices Panel here: An Invitation for Survivors.
I will have the March Reading Roundup in two weeks, and more Survivors’ Voices posts in April, so please subscribe here if you’re not already signed up.