The Dallas Charter Didn't Invent Victims' Services

Something to consider as the U.S. Bishops ponder changes to the 2002 document.

In Philadelphia, we have two grand jury reports and — in the eyes of the public — two failed attempts to get things right. I have been engaged in victim assistance work for 30 years, and I have never seen as much pain as I have in the last four months. It’s emanating from the victims’ experience, the added pain of failing to get it right, and Catholics’ feeling of confusion and betrayal.

While I cannot address any specific cases, my tenure at the archdiocese has provided some insight into how the Church provides victim assistance and how those services could be improved.

Society is still grappling with the sexual abuse of children. The Church is dealing with an issue that the larger society doesn’t do well. The first time I arrived to help with victims’ services in 2006, I walked into a place that remains, in essence, a private institution, and that makes it insular. The Church is grappling with a societal struggle without enough expertise and competency in the area of victim assistance.

The Dallas Charter and the Church did not invent victims’ assistance. That competency exists in the broader community in established victim-assistance programs and coalitions at the local, state and national levels, and we should have been learning from it.

We made efforts to learn before the Dallas Charter: Victims in the Philadelphia Archdiocese reported allegations to the Office for Clergy. Then we changed that to the victim-assistance coordinator. That created the situation where the victim-assistance coordinator was providing services and facilitating the investigation of the allegation of sexual abuse.

But the problem of combining victims’ services and investigations is that you can’t do both well. They are different skill sets. Now, the archdiocese’s delegate for investigations, a former deputy district attorney, makes sure the allegations have substance and go to the appropriate law-enforcement authorities. His perspective and experience makes that position powerful. A civil attorney is not doing this job.

The charter came along and mandated that people be available to work with victims. But not everyone who met with victims had a background in victims’ assistance. To address the problem of limited expertise, the Church needs one foot on the inside and one on the outside. In various dioceses, outsiders now provide training, dioceses contract out for victim services, or, as we are looking to do here in Philadelphia, a hybrid is created. Meanwhile, the strength of diocesan-based victims’ services is that we can address the faith issue that many outside agencies cannot easily do.

The competency necessary to address victim assistance and the overall sexual-abuse issue is like a multifaceted diamond, including management of priests, victims’ needs, and a systematic response across the board. Every facet must be victim-centered. Otherwise, the victims don’t come forward, begin to trust again, and see some hope for change.

The Dallas Charter is a wonderful start and speaks about the need for reaching out to adult survivors of child sexual abuse. But now we need some model standards of service. What does “outreach” mean? What is the purpose of the meeting? How do you provide services and confidentiality? How do you make services accessible to victims? The answers to these questions are easily addressed by reaching out to the secular victim-assistance network. Of course, we are not going to adopt anything contrary to Church teaching, but 98% of the standards are adoptable.

Victim-assistance programs in the Church based upon the charter are less than a decade old. The Church is blazing a new trail internally, but we must take the best existing standards in the secular world and infuse them with our Catholic faith. Victims deserve no less than our complete compassion, dedication and commitment to getting it right.

Editor’s note: Mary Achilles advocates a victim-centered response to the clergy-abuse crisis and argues that the Church must learn from experts in the field. The first victim advocate for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Achilles worked from 2006-2008 advising Cardinal Justin Rigali on how best to respond to victims in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. She has 30 years of experience working with victims’ services at the local, state and national levels. Just prior to the second Philadelphia grand jury report, she was rehired in January 2011 to review and improve the archdiocese’s victims’ services and develop a communications strategy for the archdiocese.