By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published August 4, 2022
ATLANTA—For nearly 17 years, Sue Stubbs has been a counselor aiding people confronting trauma, either at the hands of a priest or another.
While her position was formed in response to priests sexually abusing young people, she admittedly didn’t know too much about it when she started in the archdiocesan Office of Child and Youth Protection.
“Most people don’t think this kind of stuff happens in the church. I fell into that category. It surprised me, but I don’t think it shocked me,” said Stubbs. “All the statistics say it happens across the board, with every economic level, every culture. It doesn’t matter. It’s everywhere.”
Her research as she started the position helped her to lean into the work.
“I just was really grateful I was at a place where I could offer to help. I wanted to help the victims,” she said.
June marked the 20th year of what’s become known as the Dallas Charter, the landmark document for addressing sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy. Local leaders in child protection are using the milestone to highlight how the Archdiocese of Atlanta serves survivors of abuse to promote healing and implements steps to prevent future abuse.
Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, commended the victims who have come forward to reform the church.
“Their witness has led directly to meaningful reform in the church and to a greater awareness of sexual abuse in the wider world. For past survivors and future children, it is imperative that we remain vigilant,” he said in a statement.
“At this two-decade mark, we remain firm with Pope Francis’ commitment, ‘that everything possible must be done to rid the church of the scourge of the sexual abuse of minors and to open pathways of reconciliation and healing for those who were abused,’” he said.
Kathleen McChesney is a former FBI executive and the first executive director of the Office of Child Protection for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. In January, she wrote in “America” magazine that the church and its members are safer now because of the framework of the charter and its implementation.
“That is not a reason to let our guard down, of course; we must remain focused on the goal of seeing no new cases,” she wrote in the magazine.
The charter introduced new terms into the life of the church such as outreach, victim assistance and safe environment.
Office of Child and Youth Protection
Out of the Charter–officially called the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People—came mandatory screening of candidates for ordination and laity who work with young and vulnerable people, abuse-awareness training and the removal of priests who had committed one act of abuse.
In the Atlanta Archdiocese, the programs are overseen by the Office of Child and Youth Protection.
“When I say we’ve trained 38,000 people in the Archdiocese of Atlanta, that means we’ve got over 38,000 people whose eyes and ears are open in regard to being aware of their surroundings and holding other adults and other children and everyone else accountable to make sure that our children and vulnerable individuals are safe,” said Jenni Weldin, director of Safe Environment for the Atlanta Archdiocese.
Weldin, 47, a former assistant principal from Blessed Trinity High School and Marist School, oversees the prevention program. She has been in the position almost three years.
The archdiocese requires at a minimum every person engaging with a young person or vulnerable person to undergo the three-hour training. Some parishes have a blanket policy making all volunteers be trained to understand the issue. The training meetings are often welcomed by participants afterward because it opens their eyes to the critical problem, she said.
“There could be one thing I say in that group of people that saves a child’s life. That’s all that matters,” Weldin said.
The second step is volunteers submitting to a background check where a third-party combs criminal records looking to flag convictions on misdemeanors and felonies. Weldin gets those reports and engages with parish leaders. Some concerns—such as a one-time, 20-year-old misdemeanor offense—require a case-by-case review and dialogue between her office and the parish leaders, she said.
Another responsibility is the training the trainer program. There are more than 110 people who have been trained to lead the safe environment program. She also works with safe environment coordinators at every parish, mission, school and other ministries to ensure they meet the mandatory requirements.
Looking ahead, Weldin said a future focus should look at boundary violations. They are “the gateway to sexual abuse,” said Weldin, “and if we can stop the boundary violation as soon as it is recognized, we can help stop child sexual abuse.”
Victim Assistance Program
Sue Stubbs, 55, assists survivors for the Archdiocese of Atlanta. One of her efforts for healing is leading retreats for survivors. The retreats are held throughout the year, for women and men separately. It is open to survivors of abuse in any way by anyone.
The retreat is centered on the Stations of the Cross to help survivors relate their traumatic experiences with Jesus’ death and resurrection. She authored a book that leads the group, drawing parallels between the survivors’ experience and Jesus’ Passion, from feelings of betrayal and self-condemnation.
Some 104 women and 44 men have participated in two dozen retreats Stubbs has directed.
Looking ahead, Stubbs hopes to work with Hispanic therapists to revise the existing retreat experience to capture the cultural nuances to ensure it aids Latino survivors with healing.
Another area that could be reviewed for the retreat is body image. Stubbs said survivors of abuse often have a love-hate relationship with their body.
“This is not a conscious choice as putting the mind and the body in separate spaces helped these survivors to survive the abuse,” she said in an email.
The survivors’ retreat draws from St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, and Stubbs highlights how women and men are made in God’s image. Abuse can prevent survivors from feeling this gift to the fullest, she said.
In her work, Stubbs calls abuse survivors “heroes” for their courage. She said one of the desires for abuse victims is to be believed.
Initially, people dismissed their stories and raised questions that blamed the victim, she said.
“That’s changing now,” said Stubbs. People are finally realizing that’s not the case, but that they just want to be believed.”
Editor’s Note: Atlanta’s 24-Hour Abuse Reporting Line is 1-888-437-0764. Learn more about safe environment, victim assistance and find a link to the USCCB audit of dioceses at archatl.com/offices/child-and-youth-protection.