In recent weeks, Catholics were saddened and angered to learn of allegations against Archbishop Theodore E. McCarrick and the alleged cover-ups exposed by a Pennsylvania Grand Jury report regarding dioceses in that state.
The Diocese of Phoenix was in the midst of its own sexual abuse crisis more than 15 years ago. Thanks to the U.S. Bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, implemented in 2002, and a 2003 agreement with the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, the Diocese of Phoenix continues to be proactive in providing training for Church employees and volunteers and providing healing for survivors, says Dr. Anne Vargas-Leveriza, director of the diocesan Office of Youth Protection and Safe Environment Training.
These initiatives shaped the diocese’s efforts in providing education and training, healing and reconciliation and accountability.
Since then, a comprehensive safe environment policy was developed and put into place, which applies to every parish, school and ministry within the Diocese of Phoenix. About 30,000 adults — including clergy, religious, employees and volunteers — are trained on safe environment and mandatory reporting requirements. An additional 30,000 school and religious education students also receive safe environment training, including how to recognize and report inappropriate behaviors. The diocese notifies law enforcement whenever a report is filed of abuse of a minor.
“The victims assistance coordinator’s primary role is to be there as an advocate for all the survivors out there, to walk them through the journey,” said Vargas-Leveriza. “So, we’re talking about psychological healing and spiritual healing. When a victim comes forward who wants to make a report, the first thing we do is encourage them to report it to civil authorities.”
Making a report
When a report is filed, Vargas-Leveriza said she offers them “healing right away, regardless of where we’re at in the process. We’re here to really start the healing as a person.”
A zero-tolerance policy prohibits the return to ministry of any clergy against whom a credible allegation is made, and every priest or deacon against whom a credible allegation has been made is listed on the diocese’s website at dphx.org/youth-protection. When a report is filed against a cleric, in addition to notifying civil authorities, the diocese also launches its own canonical investigation. Everything that happens through the investigation is presented to the Diocesan Review Board — a highly qualified group of lay professionals, including a law enforcement officer, a licensed psychologist, a judge, a medical professional, a teacher as well as a parish pastor, which then makes a recommendation to the bishop regarding the accusation’s credibility.
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If there is an accusation against a cleric or religious who is serving in but not part of the diocese, it is reported to their superiors or diocese, and they are removed from ministry.
If an accusation is determined not to be credible, “we have an obligation to restore the good name of the cleric,” Vargas-Leveriza said. In those situations, the office would still assist in healing.
Healing is also offered for those who’ve been abused by clergy or religious outside of the diocese. In those situations, Vargas-Leveriza informs law enforcement and the other entity.
“We don’t wait for the responsible entity to respond to us. We help in any way we can,” she said. “Bishop [Thomas J.] Olmsted has always told me that as soon as a survivor comes in, we provide that healing on the first day.”
Any accusations against a bishop would go to the Apostolic Nuncio for investigation, but Vargas-Leveriza said her office would still contact law enforcement and provide healing for the survivor.
Safe environment training in the diocese also addresses vulnerable adults. The same process is followed as far as offering healing and encouraging of the reporting of the incident to law enforcement.
Local ministry Restore Dignity, supported by the diocese, offers a “Grief to Grace” retreat for all survivors of abuse, not just those abused by clerics. In addition, Vargas-Leveriza’s office provides support for individuals to see a therapist of their choice, if they request it. The office also offers spiritual direction.
Twice per year the Diocese of Phoenix holds Masses of healing and reconciliation during the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent.
Prayer is an important way for the lay faithful to join in the survivor’s journey. Vargas-Leveriza also encouraged Catholics to learn about what the Church is doing, and for those who wish to volunteer in any capacity to go through safe environment training and annual renewals.