LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas — In a world filled with vengeance, support for abuse victims of any type to find hope and forgiveness is in short supply.

The Diocese of Little Rock is moving to fill in the gap by starting a Maria Goretti Network chapter at St. Joseph Church in Conway, aimed at accompanying victims on their journey of healing.

The network, founded June 4, 2004, in the Houston suburb of Katy, is named for St. Maria Goretti, the patron saint of abused children and rape victims. Alessandro Serenelli tried to rape her when she was 11 years old. He then stabbed her 14 times and fled.

Before she died from her injuries July 6, 1902, she forgave her attacker. While he was in prison, Maria appeared to him in a dream, which led to his conversion. She was canonized in 1950.

“It creates a safe place for people to tell their story and most importantly to be believed, supported and encouraged. The Holy Spirit does all the work. We just created the place and atmosphere to do it,” said Miguel Prats, manager of the network, who lives in Katy.

In Arkansas, Little Rock Bishop Anthony B. Taylor asked Father Tony Robbins, pastor at St. Joseph, to be the chapter’s spiritual adviser. The chapter hopes to hold its first meeting this fall.

“It’s mainly the bishop’s desire to provide help and a way in which we can respond directly to people who have suffered abuse of any kind, regardless of by who. It’s a way for the Church to give the expression of God’s compassionate love for the world,” Father Robbins told the Arkansas Catholic, Little Rock’s diocesan newspaper.

“So many people are suffering from abuse, and there’s no place for them to go to receive healing for that directly,” he added. “There’s nothing available that says, ‘Hey, have you been abused? This is where you can go to find healing and to see that you’re not alone in your suffering.'”

The chapter meetings, which will last 90 minutes, will be led by two lay leaders who have suffered past abuse. One leader has already been chosen, Robbins said. It is open to Catholics and non-Catholics, including nonbelievers, Prats said.

Meetings include time for prayer, introductions, personal sharing among men’s and women’s small groups and group discussion on healing and forgiveness, according to its website,

“There are many more people than we know that have suffered abuse when they were a child and not just sexual abuse, verbal, physical abuse, neglect,” Robbins said. “There’s just a need all around for people to find compassion and someone to listen to them.”

The chapter meetings are only for abuse victims and their family members, though in late September, the parish hosted an informational meeting for all interested in learning about the network that was led by Prats and Father Gavin Vaverek, the network’s co-founder and vice president, who is from Wills Point, Texas.

Prats, 67, was abused at age 5 by an adult with intellectual disabilities and as a teenager by a priest. He struggled with drug addiction — “I overdosed on heroin twice” — and said he was the typical guy in the 1960s, “sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll.”

“I made a lot of mistakes growing up. I hurt some very, very good people, mostly women,” he said, adding that he has “repented and been redeemed,” but still struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder.

In 2002, when the Boston Globe broke the story of clergy sexual abuse and cover-ups within the Catholic Church, Prats said a light bulb went off, realizing he blocked his memories of abuse.

“In my mind, it was going to take people inside and outside of the Church to affect change,” he told the Arkansas Catholic.

“I came to find out rather quickly that people were very ugly to me because I wanted to remain in the Church. The focus was not healing; it was change in the Church,” he said of outside support groups.

He brought the idea to Vaverek in 2004 and the Maria Goretti Network was founded. There are 10 chapters, most in Texas.

“It means everything in the world to me because my life had no purpose,” Prats said.

He’s seen healing grace countless times, when angry or pained faces walk in and leave with a smile, knowing they are not alone.

“The main thing I want to make clear to people it is not just sexual abuse. No matter what form it took … We have people who have come to meetings who were beaten as children, women who were abused mentally, emotionally, physically. I want people to know that the Church does offer something more than thoughts and prayers for any victims of abuse,” Prats said.

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Hanson is associate editor of the Arkansas Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Little Rock.

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