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Victim counselor to US Bishops: Children have been betrayed

“They were children…and they were betrayed.” Dr Heather T Banis honestly addressed the US Bishops during their Fall General Assembly on Tuesday afternoon. Her remarks were based on her own experience as the Victims Assistance Coordinator for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and from others in the same position across the country.

Listening leads to understanding

The first principle Dr Banis offered was the importance of listening to victims. She encouraged Bishops to make it a regular part of their ministry to meet face to face with victims of clergy abuse and hear their stories. “It’s very different when you do it”, she said. “The power of that exchange can be remarkable.” Understanding gained from such listening is necessary in order to make policies and procedures.

“We learn from hearing their sacred stories and we honor them in those moments…. We need you to change the way things happen. But you need them to understand how to make those changes meaningful…. People change in the context of relationships”.

Earn back trust

Betrayal trauma is what the Church is now asked to face, Dr Banis continued. Those who have been abused were harmed by someone they should have been able trust. Earning back that trust is a very slow journey, that starts by believing the victims and engaging with them, she said. Ways to demonstrate trustworthiness are: apologizing for what the person has suffered, stating that they have the right to report the abuse to civil authorities, filing reports on behalf of the Church, offering professional support, removing the accused, announcing the allegation, and developing relationships with local law enforcement and social services. “It’s putting the victim first,” Dr Banis said.

Victims were silenced

Because they were young, because of their belief they would not be believed, of the communication that they would harm the Church, of the feedback that “he’s a good priest”, of  the injunction to “just get over it”, victims were silenced, Dr Banis explained. When victims assistance coordinators receive a complaint about a priest, their first reaction is, “Is this person the only victim or are there others?” The victim, on the other hand often thinks, “I must be the only one”. Making lists of perpetrators allows other victims of the same person to come forward, Dr Banis said.

Changing the climate

Dr Banis then described how the Church can communicate that those who have been abused by priests are welcome and ready to be heard. It starts with being “victim-centric”, she said. Think about them and pray for them – first; organizing apology meetings, healing and lament liturgies; creating “sacred spaces and places” where victims can feel recognized, acknowledged, safe and a part of the Church. Communication is essential. “Keep communicating about what you are learning, doing, and how things are changing”, Dr Banis encouraged the Bishops.

Prevention works

Dr Banis admitted that the prevention efforts put in place by the US Bishops is working. “The numbers tell us that”, she said. But it’s working, she added, because there is vigilance in place. That vigilance can never diminish, Dr Banis said firmly. Vigilance involves rigorous parish audits, and the removal of anyone who does not maintain the expected standards.

“If we don’t hold everyone, everyone, in the Church accountable to that, then it becomes meaningless.”

New pattern emerging

Her last recommendation was directed at using the structures in place for assisting clergy abuse involving minors for adults as well. Dr Banis says that the review board in Los Angeles ministers to both children and adults, and she encourages this practice. The reason that she gave is that they are witnessing “more and more patterns of grooming of adolescence that is then acted upon when that adolescent becomes an adult”.

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