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Survivors' Voices: Victim Assistance Coordinators
As you probably know, 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.
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.
In the years since I first reported my rape to the Church in 2006, I have interacted with two different VACs. I would describe both as well-meaning but clueless. The only real "help" that they've provided is facilitating payment/reimbursement for therapy. I know other survivors have had to fight for even this, so I'm grateful that the two VACs I've worked with have at least made that process relatively easy. What I have really needed, however, is information/transparency about my case, and neither of these VACs have been helpful in that regard. The VACs seemingly have no information about the status of investigations, how the process works (particularly once the case has been sent to the Vatican), and what the Church is actually doing to ensure that the offender (who in my case was still a priest up until 2018) is removed from the priesthood. Nearly two decades after reporting, I still have many, many unanswered questions. I have asked for, and was denied, a copy of my case file, including the statement I gave to the Church's investigators, VAC, and legal counsel.
My spiritual director encouraged me to reach out to the victims assistance office in our diocese to see what kind of resources might be available - she was hoping they’d connect me with counseling, support groups, etc. Instead, when I called, they basically told me they had nothing to say to me because I hadn’t been hurt in our diocese (I’d been elsewhere when it happened). Here I was naively thinking that they were supposed to be a resource for the faithful… but of course they pretty much exist so that the diocese doesn’t get sued. Anyway, I stopped looking to the Church for help after that.
Early in my healing, I requested to talk to the bishop. Before I could do that I was required to file a report with the diocese, and do so alone, without accompaniment. The assistance coordinator met me at my church in a room I was comfortable in. She was the second person I told details of the abuse. I trembled in fear. I could only tell a bit of my experience as I hadn't been able to articulate or understand much back then. The woman wrote notes about what I said and filed a report I was never able to review. The woman went on to be one of the people who saved me from taking my own life, though I never revealed that secret to her. We went on to collaborate in efforts to address abuse in the church. Somehow she knew and supported one of my greatest needs then. I didn't come to the church for healing (though I needed that too) but to "tell" and to contribute to addressing the problems. She valued me as a human being, something I longed for since I was a child when the abusive priest and church robbed me of knowing that I was good, valuable, worth something. It wasn't as much her compassion in my injury, but how she, as a church representative, recognized my value, worth, and goodness.
I emailed the VAC in the diocese I'd been assaulted in simply to share my story and ask them to believe some other people who had come forward against my abuser publicly. I was surprised when she emailed me back. Apparently, the fact that my abuser was a member of a religious order in the diocese played into some local politics I wasn't aware of. It resulted in pressure that got my abuser removed from ministry by his abbot. I was told I was the only one who reported it directly to the diocese and that's why they were able to act and put pressure on the order. I feel like my experience may not have been as positive if my abuser were a diocesan priest. I would have been the liability rather than the piece of the puzzle that let them pressure the already-a-liability religious order. I'm convinced that those diocesan offices exist primarily to minimize legal, financial, and public relations liability. It was interesting to watch it work in my favor in this case.
After I wrote to my bishop in 2016 I was called by the diocesan counsel (lawyer) for an interview, and the VAC was there as a "victim's advocate." She was silent for most of the process, and not an active part of that initial contact with the diocese. In retrospect, I think the VAC was at the interview primarily as an additional witness for the diocese. At the end of the interview, she established herself as the person I should contact with any further concerns or questions. I thought she was nice enough at the time, but when I called her later to ask if anything had been done, she was ineffective, condescending, and intimidating. She told me the bishop was out of town and that she'd call me back after he returned. She never called back. When I called her again some time later, I mentioned that I was seeing indicators that Father had not been curtailed in his misconduct with the other women I knew about. With obvious irritation in her voice, she said, "Why are you worried about what consenting adults are doing? You need to go back to your therapist."
I recently asked the current VAC for referrals to trauma-informed priests. Getting this request answered was no small feat, and required me having to follow up with her several times. Once I finally got her referrals, I was disappointed to see that one of her recommended priests was someone I knew (and did not feel was particularly compassionate); another was the former investigator I had made my report to, which she should have recalled; a third she described as a very close friend of hers, so that didn't seem terribly appropriate to me. There were two other names -- I reached out to both, and both (after initially acknowledging my email and saying they would be willing to talk with me) ignored me after I followed up to actually schedule a time to meet. All of this is to say that the Church as a whole, but its VACs in particular, could benefit from trauma-informed training around how they can best support victims/survivors. Providing us with financial compensation is simply not enough, and frankly it's hurtful that the Church continues to believe that it is.
If you have experienced sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and have your own experiences to share on this topic, I would be grateful to include your perspective. You can find information about joining the Survivors’ Voices Panel here: An Invitation for Survivors.
I will have the second half of this post next week, so please subscribe here if you’re not already signed up.