By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — Professionals from three Missouri dioceses who have been given the charge to respond to the sexual abuse of children and young people met Sept. 12 in Kansas City to share best practices.
The goal was summed up in one word by Mary Bultmann, survivor’s advocate for the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.
“I challenge you to change the culture from victims and start calling them survivors,” Bultmann said as she presented Kansas City-St. Joseph’s manual for the healing of people who have suffered from sexual abuse by church personnel.
“It is empowering to them to hear that,” she said. “It is healing.”
On board in her job for just a little longer than a year, Bultmann admitted she was “completely overwhelmed” at first.
“But I saw it through and changed my approach,” she said. “It’s been a blessing.”
Part of her approach has been meeting with pastors and principals so that they can know the face that goes with the name when they need help dealing with a report.
“A lot of the feedback I get is, ‘It’s hard to reach out when we don’t know who you are,’” Bultmann said.
In addition to knowing that the diocese has resources and knowing who to call to tap into those resources, it is important to listen to the people struggling to heal and survive from childhood sexual abuse, no matter how long ago it happened, she said.
“Use empathetic listening,” Bultmann said. “If they can be heard, if they have anyone who will earnestly listen to their story, we will start to see the healing that is possible if we take that approach upfront.”
Professionalization and standardization of practices and procedures is vital, said Carrie Cooper, director of the Office of Child and Youth Protection in Kansas City-St. Joseph.
“When we started, there were pieces and parts. We wanted a process to know how to document what we were doing and how we were doing it,” Cooper said.
Jenifer Valenti, ombudsman for Kansas City-St. Joseph, is often the first person to get the report.
“Because there is so much anger for the first two years of my work, what I learned is that you have to give survivor’s a choice,” she said.
The Kansas City-St. Joseph office has done that with a new “Victim Services Manual” that directs survivors to licensed counselors with training and expertise in the healing of sexual abuse.
“That’s been a big issue in Kansas City,” Valenti said. “There was nobody overseeing the process. We didn’t have a system where even credentials were checked.”
Bultmann said that healing depends on a relationship with a survivor that builds trust. But that isn’t easy, especially since the bond of trust between a survivor and the church may have been broken and not healed years ago.
“I have to remind myself to be patient,” she said. “I think that issue of trust will take years to recover.”
But there is always hope and there can always be healing, said Kim Shirk, counseling coordinator for Kansas City-St. Joseph.
“People are victims until they go through the process of healing,” she said. “Then they are survivors.”