In the wake of admitted diocesan failures handling the case of a priest accused of possessing child pornography, Bishop Robert Finn announced the creation of an independent ombudsman on June 9. Jenifer Valenti, a former team leader working on domestic violence cases in the Jackson County Prosecutor’s office, was hired for that role June 30 and she began her duties July 15.
Announcing her hire, Bishop Finn said, “Valenti’s work will be independent and confidential. She will have the responsibility and authority to receive and investigate reports of suspicious, inappropriate behavior or sexual misconduct by clergy, employees or program volunteers,” in the Diocese.
Valenti sat down with the Key this week to discuss what led her to take the position and to describe her first four months of experiences as ombudsman:
What in your life prepared you to investigate claims of child sexual abuse?
I was raised Catholic, and during the time when the child sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church was really coming to light. So I watched as that unfolded, with a lot of sorrow and a lot of interest and a lot of ideas about how this could and should be handled by the church.
As I grew older and chose a career, I focused on domestic violence cases, which almost always involve children. I was really interested in helping women who are victims of abuse and helping children who witnessed abuse, or were victims of abuse themselves, to get out of those situations.
Then, I spent a period of time as a stay-at-home mom. That time taught me how important our children are, especially in our universal Catholic Church. The children are the future. That time in my life strengthened and prepared me emotionally and spiritually for handling these types of cases.
Why would you want to take on this role?
I wanted to take on this role because I think I can help. I can make a difference and help be part of the solution to this problem. I care very deeply about the children of our faith and the integrity of our community.
Obviously, before you applied for this job, you were reading the news. Was that a prompter?
The scandal and crisis, as it hit our community, affected me tremendously. It gave me the courage to believe that it’s time for me to step up and take on this responsibility.
You’re carrying a dedicated cell phone and are scanning emails. Tell us what a typical day is like?
The answer to that question is that there is no typical day. I’ve been getting all sorts of information, leads and reports to investigate. I feel a tremendous responsibility to address every e-mail and telephone call that I receive.
One of the reasons I’m getting calls is because Bishop Finn chose to expand the type of reports that I can receive. In the past, victims and families were encouraged to call if they were being victimized or were survivors of abuse. Now, if you are aware of suspicious or inappropriate behavior or misconduct, particularly involving a minor, call. That empowers me with the ability to look into and investigate instances of suspicious behavior that may lead to predators, helping me to root out a predator in our community.
What is the value of having someone with your background and experience serving in the position of Ombudsman and receiving reports of boundary violations and other suspicious behavior which don’t necessarily rise to the level of sexual abuse?
The value of reporting those is that, with my expertise, I may know more about the behavior of a predator, the behavior of someone who is committing a crime, than the person reporting. So it allows me the opportunity to investigate fully whether the suspicious behavior is in fact indicative of criminal behavior. Sometimes it is and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes someone may have made an isolated boundary violation, a mistake, and they’re not a predator. Sometimes that information may lead to information about a predator. So it’s valuable to allow somebody with expertise and knowledge of this field to investigate these allegations.
In discharging your duties, the diocese has said that you will have the authority to consult with law enforcement. How and when you do that?
I make an evaluation immediately upon receipt of a report, and I make a determination whether law enforcement and civil authorities should be contacted. I use my particular expertise to evaluate the legal and moral requirements of my position. So I make an initial determination immediately with every report that I get, whether or not the report should be made to the Division of Family Services and local law enforcement. There are very specific criteria and requirements which must be evaluated, and every report that should be made to DFS or law enforcement will be made immediately.
How exactly do your responsibilities tie in to law enforcement and the civil authorities?
That’s a good question. In order to understand my responsibilities, you must understand all the responsibilities of those agencies and individuals involved first.
There are separate and parallel tracks employed throughout this process. The track I have been appointed to handle is the diocesan response to an allegation of abuse. The diocese has the responsibility to determine whether this allegation is true, and if it is true, whether it is sexual abuse of a minor or someone who was a minor when it occurred, and, if it is sexual abuse, whether or not this person should be in ministry or employment. The diocese has the additional obligation to report any child abuse involving a minor to civil authorities, including DFS and law enforcement. Oftentimes, these three separate but parallel tracks will be working together to form a protective response to the abuse.
The law enforcement track is very different. They have a different responsibility – to find whether or not the allegations support a criminal charge. My investigation will always yield to the criminal investigation because the diocese does not want to interfere or obstruct a criminal investigation in any way.
DFS’ responsibility lies in the protection of any child or youth involved. Each agency holds a different responsibility in responding to an allegation of abuse, although all the agencies share the common goal of protection. Each agency has a different responsibility in the outcome.
People are going to wonder as they read this — are all of these calls about our priests?
That’s a good question. The answer to that question is no. In fact, the majority of calls that I receive are not about priests. My experience in this field has shown me that this problem, the predators of the world, they don’t wear a certain color or collar or have a certain background. They exist everywhere.
When you were a prosecutor you probably went to professional development seminars on this topic. Were you educated along with child protection workers or were these workshops for lawyers and law enforcement people? Did you come together holistically as s safety net of people studying child victimization?
My position as prosecutor was in some ways very similar to this job, in that I had a very specific focus to dispose of the criminal case, but my responsibilities meshed with several other groups to form a protective response to violence. As a case progressed through the initial stages of the criminal justice system, there was an analysis of whether or not this person was a danger and how to best respond to that information.
In learning, as a prosecutor, what signs there are to support whether or not someone is a danger to society I often reviewed these signs alongside a caseworker, victim advocate, investigator and the child advocacy agencies. Certainly I was educated by experience, but I was also educated by extensive training in all aspects of prosecution. I always considered it my responsibility to understand the whole dynamic of abuse, victims and victim rights along with the rights of people who have been accused.
How many cases were you involved in during your career?
What is your relationship to the Independent Review Board and the victim’s advocate?
I am an ex-officio member of the Independent Review Board, which means that I attend the Review Board meetings, but I’m not a voting member. I consider myself to be a facilitator of their meetings. I coordinate with the IRB chair to get the topics of discussion for the meetings. I always inform the IRB chair of any reports that are pending and cases that will be presented. I present the information that I’ve gathered on cases to the Independent Review Board for their consideration and when they make a recommendation, I take that recommendation to Bishop Finn for his ultimate decision on each and every report received involving a minor.
The Victims’ Advocate, Leslie Guillot, is my colleagues and a tremendous resource into the dynamics at work in these reports. Her responsibilities focus on the protection and advocacy of victim rights. She works very closely with victims and has a responsibility to protect, to help provide healing and conciliation for victims. Often our goals are the same, but our responsibilities are different. We share the goal for the healing and reconciliation for survivors of abuse and their families.
Have other dioceses given the responsibility for taking reports to an independent contractor, such as yourself?
What I found in my research is that the number of ways these cases are handled is almost as large as the number of dioceses. Many diocese have a model where the investigative responsibilities of these reports is handled by a private investigator. So in that sense, there are other dioceses that have a similar model.
Usually there is some experience that drives people to a higher standard. It could be something personal, a magazine article, a particular case. What drives you as an investigator of abuse claims?
I wanted to become a prosecutor because I wanted to fulfill justice. What I learned in my work as a prosecutor is that there is always something more to an event than just the event. There is a family behind a murder victim, and there is the family’s perception of why and how this murder happened. Although I could not repair the relationships that were broken or severed, I could give these families justice. I could help them to feel that there was a consequence for the action, which in some ways, has wrecked lives and may have ruined families. I also learned that there is a lot of power in healing. Whatever I can do to help someone find healing and reconciliation from a very bad situation, I will do. This position gives me the opportunity to help facilitate healing for the survivors of abuse and for our faith community as well.
Everybody who works for the church has to deal with problems, but your job is to deal exclusively with very difficult problems. How does that affect your faith?
You know, it’s been really hard. I’m going to be really honest about the fact that it has been hard. But what I find is that it helps me to celebrate the goodness of the church when I am responsible for helping to root out sin and evil in the church; it helps me to celebrate so many examples, small and large, of goodness and of purity and of people who have dedicated their lives to this faith.
At the same time, I am very humbled by this job. I have seen things that I didn’t want to see. But I find peace and security in addressing those things, that ugliness, and trying to help people get to the point where they can trust our community, where they can trust our diocese, where they can trust the system. That’s very important to me as a mother, as a former prosecutor, as a member of the faith community, to be doing my part to repair the damage.