By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — This is a very important telephone number: (816) 812-2500.
It will ring a cell phone that Jenifer Valenti, the diocese’s new ombudsman and public liaison officer, will carry with her 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
For those not comfortable speaking over the phone about the sensitive issues Valenti will handle, she will constantly monitor this e-mail address: email@example.com.
Valenti, who began her new job on July 15, wants to hear from any person — victim, witness or anybody else — who has any information about or allegation of any priest, employee, or church volunteer involved in sexual misconduct and abuse, no matter when it occurred, yesterday or decades ago.
“All the reports will start with me,” said Valenti, who earned her credentials investigating and prosecuting domestic violence crime in the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office.
“I will insure that every case is handled properly,” she said.
By being “handled properly” Valenti said she means that in the final disposition, justice is served, no matter where that leads.
In fact, the lure of serving both her faith and her sense of justice brought her back to work after time off to give birth to and raise her three children. With her youngest entering kindergarten this fall, Valenti said she now has time to be both a mother — her top priority — and an attorney.
The new position of ombudsman and public liaison officer is a key component of the reforms Bishop Robert W. Finn promised in the wake of criminal charges against Father Shawn Ratigan.
Previously, all allegations of sexual abuse by clergy or any other person connected with the church went first to the vicar general, most recently Msgr. Robert Murphy.
That is not an ideal situation, especially for a victim of abuse, Valenti said.
“They may not be comfortable reporting to another clergy man,” Valenti said. “The vicar general is also responsible for the pastoral care of all the clergy, so there may be conflicting issues that arise.”
When she receives a report, Valenti said she will then immediately launch a thorough investigation of all the facts that can be gathered, and a recommendation to the diocese’s Independent Review Board as to whether the allegations, especially against a member of the clergy, are “credible.”
She will also inform any person alleging abuse that the diocese offers immediate services, including counseling, through its victim’s advocate, Leslie Guillot, while also advising victims that it is entirely their choice to contact Guillot and use those services.
In addition, Valenti has promised that immediately if she uncovers any indication that a crime has been committed, she will contact law enforcement and, in the case of child victims, the Missouri Department of Family Services.
As has been diocesan policy for years, any determination by the Independent Review Board of a credible allegation results in the immediate suspension of the alleged perpetrator, including priest, from all public ministry.
If the truth seems complicated and hard to ferret out in these cases, try prosecuting domestic violence cases, Valenti said.
Those cases often also involved multiple victims, witnesses and conflicting stories, but at the end of the day, Valenti said, she found that work deeply rewarding.
“It was hard, but I always felt like I was doing a good thing, and that is what really motivated me,” she said.
“I found those cases to be extremely important,” she said. “I was making a difference in victims’ lives, and I was making the world a safer place.”
Valenti also said that she is not an employee of the diocese, but an “independent contractor” hired to do a very specific job.
She will not need permission to contact law enforcement or the DFS if a case points her in that direction. Valenti said that permission is already in her job description.
“If I am given information that constitutes a crime, I will be working with civil authorities,” Valenti said. “The diocese is fully supporting me in that, and I will also facilitate healing by insuring that the rights of everyone are protected. That is done by having a process of integrity and consistency.”
As a career prosecutor, Valenti said she knows that no two cases are ever exactly alike.
“Every case is going to have unique and different components,” she said. “But the process (of investigating allegations) will remain the same.”
Valenti said it won’t be her role to prosecute the case before the Independent Review Board.
“I won’t be acting as an attorney,” she said. “I will be the fact-finder. I will gather information about a complaint and turn it over to the Independent Review Board for determination.”
She also sees her role as one that will help a healing process begin as soon as possible.
“I feel my task is to assure that these cases are handled properly, assure that all parties are afforded the opportunity of healing, assure that the facts are known properly and accurately, and assure that if there are victims of crime that civil authorities are involved.
“I will be acting upon the wisdom and knowledge I gained as a prosecutor, but I will not be acting as a prosecutor. I will be an independent gatherer of information, and I have been given the responsibility for properly leading these cases.”
Valenti said that for as long as she can remember, she wanted she wanted to bring healing and justice to victims of crimes, and that lead her to a goal of working professionally as a prosecuting attorney.
“I know how to do an investigation,” she said. “I know how to provide healing services to victims. These things are second nature to me.”
Educated through high school in the Catholic schools of Jefferson City, Valenti said her new job as ombudsman and public liaison officer also allows her to deepen and practice her faith professionally.
“It combines my interest in justice with my faith,” Valenti said.
“The charge of our faith is to provide healing,” she said. “How can we do that if we don’t express that through out faith?”