This story is part of an occasional educational series on diocesan safe environment practices.
No matter what she’s doing when her cell phone rings — whether she’s asleep at night, standing in a crowded elevator or walking down the aisle at the grocery store — Roxann Storms must be ready to offer a listening and compassionate ear.
“You learn how to live with that anticipation. It could be the middle of the night or on a weekend or Christmas Eve. I try to be ready and as available as I can because the person on the phone had a need to call and is reaching out,” said Storms, who has served as the victim assistance coordinator for the Diocese of St. Cloud since 2007.
The position of victim assistance coordinator was established in the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” adopted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002. Article 2 of the charter states that “dioceses/eparchies are to have a competent person or persons to coordinate assistance for the immediate pastoral care of persons who report having been sexually abused as minors by clergy or other church personnel.”
“These were professional individuals who offered to be available to anybody who wanted to come forward if they had been abused by someone connected to the church, had questions or just needed some support,” Storms said. “Victim survivors might not want to go to their priest or to the diocese, and the diocese wanted other safe places where people could come for help.”
There are currently five volunteer advocates in addition to Storms, who is contracted by the diocese as the victim assistance coordinator. She is a licensed, clinical social worker.
Storms said most of the calls she receives involve abuse that happened decades ago. “We invite people at any point and time to come forward when they are ready, in whatever way is best for them. We let them know they also can go directly to law enforcement. We want them to know that they have that absolute right and we will go with them if they want,” she said.
Storms said the number of calls she is receiving has increased in the last month. Many have stated that recent headlines in the media have again triggered memories and emotions for them.
Often what Storms hears is, “I’m not even sure why I’m making this call, I just wanted to tell someone.”
“The very first thing I do is thank them for calling and affirm the courage it took for them to take this step,” Storms said. “Oftentimes, they say they feel a weight lifted after sharing what happened to them. For some, it has taken them 50 or more years to make that call. It may have been their first time saying it out loud.”
After listening to their experience, Storms’ next step includes verifying some information, such as the name of the abuser, the location where the abuse took place and the approximate year it happened.
“Beyond that, I don’t probe for details. I say, ‘Tell me what you feel comfortable sharing,’” Storms said. “If they’re not ready to give their name, that’s OK. I ask them what they need at this time and what they want done with the information they shared.”
In respecting the autonomy of an adult who calls about past clergy abuse, Storms tells the victim/survivor a report will be made to the bishop, but their name doesn’t have to be on it if that’s what they want. She lets them know they also have the right to make a police report, even if the offender is deceased. “Reporting to authorities can be very empowering.” Additional support is offered, including the option to meet with the bishop or his representative as well as financial support for psychotherapy or spiritual healing.
According to the charter and state-mandated reporting laws, if the abuse involves a minor and is current or has taken place within the last three years, Storms needs to report it to civil authorities, which includes social services or law enforcement agencies. “It’s always about the safety of children, so if there is any question of what to do, I make a call to check it out.”
“If it’s a family member who is the offender, that situation goes to social services. If it’s a non-family member, it goes to law enforcement,” she explained. “But you can report to either one, especially in this area. They work in concert with each other and will tell you what to do next.”
Upon receiving a credible allegation of sexual abuse of a minor that happened at any time by a cleric who is still living, the bishop removes the cleric’s faculties. If law enforcement begins an investigation, the diocese would not conduct its own investigation during this time so as not to interfere with a criminal investigation. A separate investigation by the diocese may take place after the criminal investigation is completed and faculties reinstated if the allegation is found unsubstantiated.
“It’s not about not taking action or covering up anything, but to allow the criminal investigation to proceed without interference,” Storms said. “The St. Cloud Diocese also has a practice of holding listening sessions when a new allegation is made to see if there are other victim/survivors.”
The diocese is required to provide an annual audit of allegations of clergy abuse of a minor, regardless of when the abuse occurred. Between July of 2017 to June of 2018, there were no reported cases. “People called with questions about other situations, but that means during that time there were no calls with an allegation of a current or past sexual abuse of a minor or vulnerable adult by a priest or deacon,” Storms said.
What has changed?
“Why wasn’t abuse reported to law enforcement in the 1950s and ‘60s and even early ‘70s?” is a question Storms often hears.
“We didn’t have protections in place, such as the charter,” she said. “Sadly, abuse happened during those times, so we continue to encourage victim/survivors to come forward. There are many healing reasons to report it, to have somebody else receive their story and validate their experience. This is so important, to be able to know, ‘It wasn’t just me. I’m not alone.’ Oftentimes, they have questioned, ‘What was it about me? What did I do? Did I do something wrong? Was I bad?’
“How hard, how deeply, deeply shattering that would be to question their own essence and goodness,” Storms said. “Making the call can help them find relief, to know it wasn’t them. It was the offender.”
Although the charter is specifically designed to protect minors and vulnerable adults, Storms said it is critical to provide safe environments for all people. The Diocese of St. Cloud has a sexual misconduct policy as well as guidelines in ethics and integrity on its website www.stcdio.org.
Safe environment practices have been implemented since the 2002 charter and improved upon annually.
In August, the diocese launched a new online platform designed to help its parishes and Catholic schools maintain safe environment records and streamline training information. There is also curriculum for youth and adults which each parish and school is required to conduct.
“In our diocese and across the country, things have strengthened,” Storms said. “The processes, the procedures and the awareness have helped to create a safer church by creating safer environments. From this devastating crisis, there now are a huge number of people, number of children, who have greater awareness about the respect and autonomy of their own bodies and have found their voice to tell someone when something feels uncomfortable or unsafe.
“Thousands of children have gotten that message, have gotten that empowerment. Thousands of adults have increased awareness of being watchful,” she added. “Out of tremendous hurt and pain and sin and crime, we are strengthening, we are creating safer places for all of us within the church, within our families and within our communities.”