On a spring day in 2010, Archbishop Roger Schwietz came to my office at the Archdiocesan Marriage Tribunal and sat down to talk about the Office of Safe Environment. Adrian Dominican Sister Jackie Stoll, the director at the time, was leaving the archdiocese. She left large shoes to fill as she was not only the director for Safe Environment, but she was a woman religious and nurse practitioner and he asked if I would assume that position. As with many ministries in the church, I was not clear on what exactly it would entail, but of course I was well aware of the pain, suffering and challenges that were involved in this ministry.
When I think back at these past six years, I think of a quote credited to Max Lucado: “The circumstances we ask God to change are often the circumstances God is using to change us.”
As a pastoral minister and social worker, I certainly have been changed in facing the challenge of clarifying policies and strengthening trust between the archdiocese leadership and the people of God.
Helping others heal from the unimaginable pain of being sexually abused by someone representing the church while also addressing the anger of people feeling betrayed, were things I knew only God could address and change. But God needed the leadership of the church to cooperate in making these things possible and Archbishop Schwietz provided that cooperation.
Six years ago he asked me to help him develop relationships and establish policies and procedures to address the great pain and suffering experienced by victims, the people of the archdiocese and the wider community.
The feelings that can come from facing this issue within our church are either despair or hope. I found hope in seeing the growing awareness of Archbishop Schwietz in regards to the problem of abuse and violence (the shame, destruction and tremendous pain it causes) and the aggressive action needed to help heal and prevent this from happening in the future. He put his trust in God and with the people of the archdiocese, along with law enforcement, review board members, mental health professionals and his fellow bishops. He made reporting, responding and helping victims a priority. He sought transparency by consulting and collaborating with professionals outside of the church with policy and practical concerns to make the church a safer place.
Archbishop Schwietz developed a ministry of hope, healing and prevention. Under his leadership, I felt unfettered freedom to support victims who came forward by reaching out to the community at large through collaboration with government and non-profit agencies and other churches to address all forms of violence and abuse. I was also enabled to promote prevention by developing and enforcing policies that work towards stopping future victimization.
The harm from sexual abuse seems insurmountable especially when trying to implement change for healing and trust. But the insight, faith and strength from both victims and the people of God have shown me to believe in the possibility and the reality of change.
I have also learned from Archbishop Schwietz that understanding and learning the pain of abuse, its impact on victims, its personal and institutional implications and how to promote a healing response is ongoing and continually needs to be reviewed and improved.