As a victim assistance coordinator for the Diocese of Tulsa, Oklahoma, Donna Eurich said she believes one of the best results of her position — which springs from the U.S. bishops’ “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” — is to help victims both find healing and not lose their faith.
Eurich, who was in Grand Rapids, Michigan, June 5-8 for the 16th Annual Child and Youth Protection Catholic Leadership Conference, where the 20 years since the so-called “Dallas Charter” was a looming topic of conversation, said in her diocese she is mostly engaging with “historic” claims of clergy abuse — meaning the perpetrator is deceased.
Sitting with victim survivors has required her to have a good listening disposition and to be able to handle hearing traumatic stories without being reactionary; to not herself become traumatized by what she is hearing and to be strong for the benefit of survivors.
“The most important thing is to apologize and acknowledge that something has happened and to believe them; in some cases this might be the first time they are speaking publicly about their experience and the church wants to help them through that,” Eurich told Catholic News Service by phone.
“It is a ministry of the church, a topic of respect life; those of us in this ministry take this very, very seriously. We love people and we want them to become healthy and whole again,” she said.
The diocese provides for victim psychological treatment and spiritual directions relative to the trauma someone experienced, she added.
The goal of the victim assistance coordinator is to be “trauma informed,” affirming that a survivor’s trauma is real and that there are specific do’s and don’ts that must be observed in helping someone on the road to healing.
“Another big hope is to extend help to people may have been abused by nonclerics: other adults, incest or other situations not (necessarily) related to the church directly,” Eurich said.
One of the speakers at the conference in Grand Rapids, she said, noted “how far we have come and what great work has been done but unfortunately much of the world doesn’t know about” in the 20 years since the “Dallas Charter.”
The bishops approved the charter during a historic general assembly in Dallas June 13-15, 2002, months after news of a devastating clergy abuse scandal emerged in the Archdiocese of Boston and led to investigations of clergy behavior nationwide. The charter was revised in 2005, 2011 and 2018.
In addition to creating the position of victim assistance coordinator, among other provisions, the document also requires dioceses to have a safe environment officer overseeing the approval and ongoing child safety training of church staff and volunteers.
But it’s a commitment to translate those policies and procedures into a genuine project that continuously strives to prevent future abuse and to tweak the elements that go into the church response to those who have been harmed by abuse, according to Heather Banis, coordinator of the Office of Victims Assistance Ministry for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
“I am constantly learning from victim survivors and it troubles me a bit to know how much I do learn from them: As informed as we are, there is always more we can learn,” Banis said.
Twenty or more years ago, the church didn’t have a sense “for what this big picture really looked like, and how many people had been harmed, understanding the inner workings that failed, (were) covered up,” Banis noted. “Nor did we have a full understanding of the impact of child sexual abuse and the layers added to that when it is by the hands of a clergy person.”
Today, the church is well on its way to being a place of healing “although we are not fully there yet,” she added. “For people in my position our default is compassion. And we are a little bit more confident because we know that we have experience in what we can, should and are offering.”
In the spirit of taking healing to the next level, the Los Angeles Archdiocese is following the lead of a local abuse survivor with an expertise in horticulture to create an outdoor healing garden for those survivors who have left the church and may want to explore coming back.
“The survivor has been consulting on the garden and he is a faith-filled Catholic even as he reconciles what has happened to him,” Banis said, noting that later this summer the archdiocese hopes to dedicate the healing garden for those not yet ready to set a foot in a church but who wish to sit in a comforting place of healing.
Like other public memorials that mark tragic events, “it is a very tangible, physical symbol of the church’s commitment and one that a loved one or survivor can access on their own, which offers a place of solace and kindling and connection with God,” Banis said.
“It can feel overwhelming but I believe healing is possible. It is a real labor of love for all of us involved. It is not the only way but it is a perfect offering in its own way,” she added.
Whitney True-Francis, who is in her second year as a victim assistance coordinator at the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri, said the tone that emerged the conference in Grand Rapids identified the church’s evolution these past 20 years to a more restorative approach to survivor healing and trauma as a lifelong endeavor.
The Missouri diocese, she said, offers survivors a generous program of counseling not only for themselves but for their friends and family members who suffered secondary effects.
Now the diocese has rolled out a new program called “Journey to Bethany,” which for the first time recently brought together a small group of survivors at a community center who wished to gather in a safe place for sharing their story with each other and with professional counselors.
“My primary job is to accompany survivors who come to me in various ways and however they wish to proceed: investigate, speak to our general council or take advantage of counseling services,” True-Francis told CNS. “It is my honor to walk with victim survivors where they are; and healing is not linear; it lasts a lifetime and we really have to hold space wherever they are and provide counseling.”
“We are trying out a lot of different things,” she added.
Rod Herrera, who is director of the Office of Child and Youth Protection at the Diocese of Camden, New Jersey, and who also was in Michigan for the child protection conference, said many in his position struggled with what to do on the 20th anniversary of the “Dallas Charter.”
“It is not a celebration, but we need to recognize it has been 20 years since an extraordinary document that the bishops ratified in such a short time in response to what was coming out of Boston that year,” Herrera said, in reference to the high-profile Boston clergy scandals that became a media focal point.
“It still needs to be looked at and improved in order to protect children in all our parishes and schools — one case of abuse is too many,” he said. “But we have really decreased the number of incidents and a lot of it is because of the training we do. It requires that we train adults and that we train children as well.”
At the Michigan conference, a clergy abuse survivor from the Midwest area spoke to the conference about coming forward some five years ago and about her initial three-hour interview with church representatives during which she felt affirmed.
“She felt listened to and cared about and this is not something that would have happened that way (decades ago),” Herrera said.