Scott Warden
April 9, 2024 // Bishop

‘It Is a True Privilege’ to Walk with Abuse Survivors

Scott Warden

Victim Assistance Coordinator Explores 20 Years of Serving the Church

Every April, Catholic parishes and schools across the United States participate in National Child Abuse Prevention Month.

In 2002, the Catholic bishops of the United States met in Dallas and approved the landmark Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which outlined ways in which the Church could help prevent abuse.

For more than 20 years, Mary Glowaski has served as the Victim Assistance Coordinator for the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend. In an interview with Today’s Catholic, Glowaski explores the progress made throughout the past two decades, the strength she’s witnessed in victim survivors, the process of reporting incidents of abuse, and how her role in walking with survivors has impacted her own faith.

Today’s Catholic: It’s been more than 20 years since the Dallas Charter mandated that each diocese establish the role of a victim assistance coordinator (VAC). What does that role entail, and how has it evolved through the years?

Mary Glowaski: Everything has changed in the last 20 years primarily because many in the Church have learned that we must listen to victim survivors and to respond to them as true victims who need our care, support, and love. Victim survivors must be at the center of all that we do and all that we offer. Any initiative or response must be rooted in what they have experienced and how we can walk with them as they seek healing and peace.

In the beginning of my ministry, I truthfully did not know what I was saying “yes” to when I accepted the position of victim assistance coordinator. Twenty years ago, I doubt that many knew what was coming and what would be asked of us as we confronted such terrible suffering. The victim assistance coordinator is a position of care, facilitation, and advocacy. It is a remarkable position in that the VAC works for and serves the Church but also and most importantly serves those who have been harmed. Through the years, the role and focus of the VAC has grown as we have understood what it means to give voice to the pain of the abuse and to be certain that all we do is rooted in respect, care, and love. We have also learned that this role requires formation and most especially a deep love for Jesus Christ and for the Church. The pain received can destabilize even the most solid individual if you do not first understand that the Church must lead in love and transparency. A victim assistance coordinator is called to enter the pain caused by the abuse and to stay with the victim survivor as they speak the truth of their experience and, when needed, to give voice to their pain if they are unable to do this. It is important to understand that this is a privilege.

I have been blessed to serve under two bishops who have always placed their deepest concern and care for all those wo have been harmed – victim survivors, our good and so faithful priests, and all in the Church who have been impacted by the harm.

Today’s Catholic: It’s likely that readers of Today’s Catholic have been required to have a background check done and complete Safe Environment training in order, for example, to volunteer at their child or grandchild’s school – and then, every couple of years, renew that training and get another background check done. Can you explain the role that these protocols have in keeping children of the diocese safe?

Glowaski: The harm that has been caused required that the Church respond in ways that would begin to restore a measure of trust in our absolute commitment to care for and to protect our children. When the bishops gathered in 2002, it was clear that this meant entering into a process of training and accountability to ensure safe environments for our children. The result was the development and formation of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. The charter is a document that lays out exactly what is required of each diocese in the country to do all that we can to protect the most vulnerable in our Church. As part of this response, each diocese is required to have a safe environment coordinator to assist parishes and to oversee compliance of the process for protection that must be followed by every parish in the diocese and a victim assistance coordinator to receive allegations and then to respond to the needs of victim survivors.

Safe Environment training, which focuses on building awareness of the signs of possible abuse or grooming, has been instrumental in averting some very concerning situations in our diocese. Anyone in our diocese, including our clergy, who will encounter children and young people are required to complete background checks and Safe Environment training.

Although we are years down the road from the days of the diocese receiving three to four allegations a day, and despite the belief by some that we leave this all behind, we have evidence in the value of the training and the requirement of background checks, as the number of allegations received by our diocese and nationally has greatly diminished. In our own diocese, we have had situations of concern we have been able to address before any harm could be caused. This is exactly why we can never let our guard down in our care and protection of the young and vulnerable.

Today’s Catholic: What other things are being done to ensure the safety of children that the faithful might not know about or participate in?

Glowaski: Bishop Rhoades is always supportive of trainings and formation opportunities for all our clergy and those in the diocesan curia as we continue to respond and serve all in our Church who have suffered from this trauma. This suffering in our Church is generational, as we now receive calls from parents, siblings, and children of those who were sexually abused and, as a result, what they have suffered as a family in broken relationships, serious mental illness, addictions, and mistrust of the Church – and, perhaps most serious and painful, is the wounded relationship many have with God. Clergy sexual abuse in many cases robs the victim survivor and, for some, their family members of the very relationship we as people of faith so naturally turn to when we are suffering.

Today’s Catholic: Can you explain the importance of the men and women at the parish level who have been tasked with facilitating and maintaining these safety procedures?

Glowaski: Our parish Safe Environment coordinators are truly the unsung heroes in our efforts to protect our children. The tasks of a Safe Environment coordinator are very detailed and, in some cases, very complicated. Without their time, hard work, and commitment we would not have been able to rebuild trust in our Church. The work of the Safe Environment coordinator is certainly a compliance position that requires great attention to ensure all background checks and trainings for every diocesan employee are completed and up to date. And in the very rare occasions that an alert is received, it is the responsibility of the SEC to notify the pastor and/or principal. Safe Environment work is an integral and essential part of our response to care for our children.

Today’s Catholic: It can be very difficult for those who have been abused to come forward. What would you say to encourage someone who has been abused to report it?

Glowaski: There really are no words to describe the courage it takes anyone to offer an allegation against one of our diocesan priests. It is unique and extremely complicated to ask a victim survivor to call the organization for which the alleged abuser works and served. In the 20 years that I have received these allegations, I have been extremely humbled by the strength of those who call to speak with a representative of the Church and then share such painful details of the abuse they suffered. I have received allegations from some who are very angry, sad, frightened, and confused, but I have not received a call from anyone to make a false allegation. In fact, I have received calls from a few who were hesitant to report for fear they were confused about the identity of the man who abused them.

We, especially our bishop, want anyone who has been harmed to know how deeply sorry we are for the pain they have suffered, especially those who may have shared their story in the past and were not believed or treated with the great care. I know that no matter what I/we can do, we cannot change the past, but we can and are committed to receiving all with respect, compassion, and a deep desire to help anyone who calls us to find healing. We have made mistakes in the past. I know that I certainly have, and as I reflect on the last 20 years, I know that I could have done better, but I also know that where we have grown most profoundly is that we sincerely want to care for anyone who has been harmed – anyone.

It is a true privilege to receive the calls and to have an opportunity to offer someone so profoundly wounded the assurance that they matter and that we will hold their story and their pain with compassion and a commitment to work on their behalf.

Today’s Catholic: If someone has suffered abuse within the Church – either recently or in the past – what should their first steps be, and how does the diocese walk with them on this very painful journey?

Glowaski: Anyone – victim survivor, family member, friend, anyone in our Church, anyone – can simply call 260-399-1458 or email [email protected].

When a call is received, I will simply listen as the caller shares with me whatever they want to share. They will be asked very few questions, so they do not have to share the painful details more than is necessary. Once I receive basic demographic information, I explain that I will share the information with Bishop Rhoades and our Vicar General, Father Mark Gurtner. It is at this point that a full and very detailed investigation begins. If living, the accused priest is notified by Father Gurtner of the allegation, and our diocesan investigator is engaged to begin his work.

As victim assistance coordinator, my focus is completely on the alleged victim. I am available to meet or for calls as they share more deeply the details of the abuse that has been suffered. Throughout the journey, I will keep the caller apprised of any decisions that are made and begin with them an assessment of what might best serve them. In some cases, it may take several phone calls before someone feels safe enough to share his or her identity, so it is essential that the caller is allowed the space and time to share what they can when they can.

There is not simply one way for these calls to come, but in all cases, they must be received with gentleness and care.

Today’s Catholic: How has serving in your role as the diocesan victim assistance coordinator impacted your own faith life?

Glowaski: One hundred and fifty-three: That is the number of allegations we have received in our diocese in the last 20 years. Not all are reflected in the numbers we report or the number of victim survivors on our credibly accused list, but individuals who call to share that they have suffered, and in some cases to say they do not want to report for themselves but out of concern for others they believe were also harmed.

It is not only my faith that has been impacted, but I am changed as a human being as witness to the unspeakable pain and, even more so, the amazing determination of victim survivors and those who love them to seek justice and healing, and to be known by and have a relationship with a God they believe abandoned them. Our victim survivors are the truest example of what living a life of faith means as they struggle to understand what happened to them and to confront the most difficult and unanswerable question: Why?

I have been witness to the gift of grace when our bishop looks into the eyes of a victim survivor and expresses his profound sorrow for what was done and the suffering that was caused, to therapists who help family members understand the trauma suffered in their loved ones and how they can find healing, to priests who are willing listen to a survivor and carry the burden of this communal harm, and, most profoundly, to victim survivors who can say they forgive our Church and even the men who harmed them.

I have learned what it truly means to enter the pain of another and have nothing to offer but my prayer and love. I have been graced to walk with victim survivors in the most raw, messy, and agonizing pain, and in these places, I have found God in His most real, gentle, and compassionate expressions, and I am profoundly humbled and grateful.

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