New Leaders Named for Oversight Board, Assistance Ministry

By Ellie Hidalgo
The Tidings
April 4, 2008

Recently appointed leaders of the archdiocesan Clergy Misconduct Oversight Board and the Office of Victims Assistance Ministry said they hope to build on the solid work of their predecessors.

Dan Koenig --- who served the Los Angeles Police Department for 32 years in numerous field and management capacities prior to his retirement --- began chairing the Oversight Board for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in January. Koenig succeeds Judge Richard P. Byrne, who served as chair for more than five years.

Also in January, Suzanne Healy was named coordinator for the Office of Victims Assistance Ministry, which provides counseling to survivors of sexual abuse. Healy succeeded Society of the Holy Child of Jesus Sister Sheila McNiff, the first director of the program since its inception in April 2002, who currently is on sabbatical.

Oversight Board

The Clergy Misconduct Oversight Board, which began operation in June 2002 after the priest abuse scandal broke nationally, reviews complaints made to the archdiocese about misconduct by priests and deacons. The board consists of 13 independent-minded members, representative of the Catholic community racially, ethnically and socially; its role is to provide specific recommendations to Cardinal Roger Mahony on how to proceed with each case of alleged abuse.

Allegations are rigorously investigated by investigators who also cooperate with law enforcement in criminal cases. If the board determines that an allegation is credible, the board recommends that a priest be put on administrative leave and that canonical proceedings are initiated that could lead to his removal from the priesthood. The cardinal, said Koenig, has consistently followed the board's advice.

Over the next couple of years, added Koenig, "we want to codify some of the thought process and capture the institutional knowledge in writing."

Koenig, a parishioner at Incarnation Church in Glendale, said that as board chair he wants to harness the wisdom gained through many experiences by writing out policies and guidelines. By way of example, the board wants to set down in writing when a parish should be notified of an allegation against their parish priest, how to notify parishioners, under what circumstances and for what purpose.

"We've done it a lot," said Koenig. "Now we need to capture the thought process in maintaining the balance between priests being accused and the person making an allegation and the church's overall responsibility to provide for the well being of everyone."

Protecting Catholic children is important to Koenig. He and his wife Judy of 37 years have raised two daughters and a son, and now enjoy their two grandchildren with two more on the way.

Koenig notes that there is a variety of experience among board members. Judge Byrne, who has advised the cardinal on abuse issues since 1993, will remain as vice-chair of the board to ensure all the institutional knowledge and experience is gathered in writing, and "to provide the guidance and the depth that's needed," said Koenig.

Other board members include a former assistant United States attorney, a child psychiatrist, a clinical psychologist, two priests, a nun, a victim of abuse and a parent of several children who were abused by a priest.

"I see my job more as a facilitator," Koenig said. "The board itself is a phenomenal group of people --- dedicated and conscientious. I facilitate them achieving consensus on different issues."

Assistance Ministry

Suzanne Healy worked more than 18 years in the business world in sales, marketing and strategic planning for Pacific Bell before returning to school to pursue a degree in marriage and family therapy and school counseling. She described her second career change as a "burning desire" to assist families, and she did so in a school environment for 11 years. All the while, she and her husband John raised two sons.

When she received the call from Sister McNiff to consider directing the work of Assistance Ministry, Healy said she recognized "an opportunity to be part of the healing and the solution to something all of us have felt." She worked alongside Sister McNiff for six months to learn from and experience the "level of sensitivity and compassion" which Sister McNiff brought to this ministry.

The office is charged with creating a safe environment for victims to come forward, while ensuring that civil authorities are notified and victims are provided counseling and other assistance in the healing process.

People continue to come forward with their painful stories in their own time, said Healy, as they discover "their courage and strength and feel able to speak it out loud."

The ministry seeks to provide pastoral outreach, counseling, therapy and "whatever is needed for their recovery," said Healy, like Koenig a parishioner at Incarnation Church. Her staff includes a licensed clinical social worker and a clinical psychologist.

For an adult survivor of child sexual abuse, particularly if the abuser was a priest or church person, the road to healing is a "very long journey," conceded Healy. In a very individual way, she said, each person has to search out how to integrate understanding that the abuse was not their fault, cope with a myriad of feelings including shame and pain, establish healthy boundaries, reconcile their relationship with God and with family members who couldn't protect them, and learn to trust again.

"We want to give them the tools to help them heal and to feel God's love," she said.

Many times adult survivors have numbed the abuse with alcohol or drugs, and addiction counseling is also an important part of the recovery process.

Healy also is present when Cardinal Roger Mahony personally meets with victims of clergy sexual abuse to offer the church's apology. The cardinal has met with more than 80 victims, including some who sued the archdiocese and were part of last year's announced settlement.

Recognizing that abuse is a societal-wide problem, the ministry also welcomes phone calls from parishioners who are dealing with family abuse issues, or from Catholic schools who are concerned about a student being abused. They will assist parish or school staff in reporting abuse to civil authorities and offer counseling referrals for a child and their family.

"When you help a child early, the healing is so much greater than if the child harbors something inside for many, many years," said Healy.

As coordinator of Assistance Ministry, Healy hopes to continue and to expand the ministry by offering victims/survivors appropriate reconciliation services as well as ongoing support groups. Healy and her staff are reaching out to other faith traditions to share their knowledge and experience.

She is also offering a faith-based program for adult survivors of childhood abuse and neglect. The next program takes place April 12 and 19 at Incarnation Church.

She added: "There's a very spiritual component that includes prayer and song, forgiveness and the sacrament of anointing for all the pain they have suffered."


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.