Office Offers Services to Victims Who Call

By Kevin Luperchio
The Catholic Free Press [Worcester MA]
Downloaded March 14, 2003

WORCESTER - Eight people have filed abuse complaints with the diocesan Office for Healing and Prevention since its inception in May 2002, according to Frances J. Nugent.

As victim services coordinator, Mrs. Nugent is often the first contact for anyone wishing to file a complaint.

Typically, her initial conversation with an alleged victim occurs over the phone. She said the first thing she does is explain that the person must submit a signed complaint, copies of which are given to Bishop Reilly and the Worcester District Attorney's office. (Anyone under the age of 18 is referred immediately to the Department of Social Services.)

If the alleged victim decides to file a complaint, Mrs. Nugent, who is a member of the Initial Review Committee, and another member of the committee, meet with the alleged victim. They often travel to the alleged victim's home or another location to garner any relevant information.

"I'll go anywhere to meet with these people," she said.

The Initial Review Committee is a subcommittee of the Pastoral Care Committee, an interdisciplinary panel of lay and religious experts who advise the bishop on matters of sexual abuse. Mrs. Nugent, a licensed social worker, is a member of the Pastoral Care Committee.

Once a complaint has been filed, Mrs. Nugent presents the alleged victim's complaint to the full committee who then determine whether the allegation is credible and advise the bishop of their decision.

The bishop, who may also meet with the accused priest, then decides whether the priest should be placed on administrative leave. Placing a priest on leave does not imply the priest is guilty.

The role of the Office of Healing and Prevention in the administrative aspect of a complaint ends when Mrs. Nugent presents a case to the Pastoral Care Committee, she said.

Patricia O'Leary Engdahl, director of the office, said its real focus is pastoral healing.

Counseling is an important part of this healing, Mrs. Engdahl said.

The office is authorized to pay for outside counseling services for victims starting at the point of the face-to-face meeting, she said.

Neither she nor Mrs. Nugent handle the counseling themselves, Mrs. Engdahl said; rather, it is outsourced to a therapist the victim chooses.

"We are not saying you can only see one of (a select group) of people," she said. "We are very respectful of the comfortability of the victim."

Mrs. Nugent said a victim who contacts the office often already has a therapist. In that case, the office, through the diocese, pays for those services.

Because all of the counseling is outsourced, the Office for Healing and Prevention does not have or keep any counseling records, Mrs. Engdahl said.

The office's records consist of a copy of the signed complaint and a "face sheet" of personal information like name, address, phone number and therapist's name.

Most of the phone calls that come into the Office of Healing and Prevention are not made by complainants, Mrs. Engdahl said.

Mrs. Nugent said friends or relatives of an alleged victim sometimes call with questions, in which case she tries to set up a face-to-face meeting with the victim.

"The victim can bring whomever he wants," she said.

While the healing of victims is paramount, the office is also concerned with all who are affected by sexual abuse. This, according to Mrs. Engdahl, includes parishes whose pastors have been placed on leave due to allegations of abuse.

She said she and Mrs. Nugent have travelled to all but one of the parishes in this situation to lead listening and healing sessions.

These sessions, which are open to all parishioners, are a forum for people who wish to share thoughts and experiences as well as an opportunity to explain the services the Office for Healing and Prevention provides, Mrs. Engdahl said.

She and Mrs. Nugent have also delivered about 30 presentations to parishes, schools and community organizations about the office's programs and services.

Often, she said, people are interested in the process the diocese undertakes in handling abuse allegations.

The Office for Healing and Prevention also coordinates the diocese's use of CORI, or criminal records, background checks.

To date, the office has overseen CORI checks of almost all diocesan clergy, employees and volunteers who have unsupervised access to children, a total of 5,634 checks in all, Mrs. Engdahl said.

"Of the thousands we have done, we have had very few that have caused grave concern to us," she said.

Certain information uncovered in CORI checks would result in the immediate termination of an employee. These include sex offenses and other violent crimes, Mrs. Engdahl said.

The Office for Healing and Prevention is located in the Chancery building at 49 Elm St., Worcester. The office may be reached by telephone at 508-929-4362. Mrs. Nugent may be reached at 508-929-4363.

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