Assistance Ministry Helps Abuse Victims Find Healing

The Tidings [Los Angeles CA]
August 4, 2006

The Office of Victims Assistance Ministry of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles was created in April 2002 to deal with allegations of past or current sexual abuse by clergy, religious, and any lay person working or volunteering for the archdiocese. The office was charged with creating a safe and compassionate environment for victims to come forward, while ensuring that civil authorities are notified and victims are provided counseling and other assistance in the healing process.

Cardinal Roger Mahony mandated that a policy of "zero tolerance" be implemented throughout the archdiocese. Any person, whether clergy or lay, found to be engaging in inappropriate sexual misconduct with a minor is reported to authorities and can never work or volunteer for the archdiocese again.

Victims Assistance Ministry provides assistance to parishes and schools dealing with issues of sexual abuse of minors by church or school personnel, coaches or volunteers, and in family systems where abuse continues as a society-wide problem.

Directed by Society of the Holy Child of Jesus Sister Sheila McNiff, the office advises nearly 100 Catholic parishes and schools each year.

Sadly, the abuse of children is a "societal epidemic," said Dr. Tom Olona, a clinical psychologist on staff with Victims Assistance Ministry. "Children are being abused, most likely by someone the child knows."

Nationally, by the time children reach age 18, one in five of them will have suffered the trauma of sexual abuse, he said.

However, as awareness increases dramatically among parishes and schools receiving education and training in sex abuse prevention, the opportunities for healing and further prevention of abuse also significantly rise.

One effect of having children in parishes of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles learn the five basic body safety rules through the program Good Touch/Bad Touch® is that young people are feeling safer and more empowered to ask for help and to report to their parents, teachers or ministers experiences of sexual abuse in the school, parish, neighborhood or home.

Parish clergy, religious and lay staff and school personnel are turning to the Office of Victims Assistance Ministry for intervention, for assistance in reporting abuse to civil authorities and for counseling referrals for a child and his or her family.

"It's a very stressful thing for a teacher to have to make this report. They call us for support," said Olona. The office also seeks to identify three qualified therapists working in the vicinity of the child's residence.

Referred to as the "support hub" or "crisis central," the Office of Victims Assistance Ministry also works with the archdiocesan Department of Catholic Schools, the Vicar for Clergy, the Vicar for Women Religious as well as the Office of Safeguard the Children, the Office of Legal Counsel, and the Office of Restorative Justice. The coordinated effort is aimed at proactively helping victims and communities to heal, holding perpetrators accountable for their actions, and preventing further abuse, said Sister McNiff. She has worked in the area of sexual abuse counseling for more than 20 years.

"How can we best help this family?" the staff asks themselves as they coordinate support. "What can we do to support someone's ability to heal?"

Victims Assistance Ministry is also set to expand its role beyond Catholic circles and into the wider community. An Oct. 3-4 conference at Loyola Marymount University, sponsored by the office, will focus on how to facilitate sexual abuse survivor support groups in Christian churches, synagogues, other faith communities and in the community at large.

"We're inviting leaders to work together on a societal problem," said Sister McNiff, who received a grant from the Society of Holy Child Jesus to help finance the conference.

"We have an obligation to promote leadership on this issue," added Olona, a parishioner of Incarnation Church in Glendale and a father to three young children. "We know what to do. We have enough experience."

During the conference, religious leaders, professionals and highly skilled volunteers will be trained by Trauma Recovery Associates in how to lead a structured 15-week support group program in a parish or other setting.

"It's another tool. We're trying to offer a safe place, in addition to therapy, to do some significant healing work," said Sister McNiff. "The conference is a new initiative which focuses on how healing from abuse is a critical issue."

The Office of Victims Assistance Ministry can be reached by calling (213) 637-7650. The hotline number to report sexual abuse is (800) 355-2545. This weekly series of feature stories, commentary and analysis is compiled and edited by an advisory group to the Media Relations Office of the Archdiocese, through which the articles are distributed. This is the thirty-third article in a series.


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