Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Victims’ Assistance Coordinator steps down; ‘it’s been a privilege to serve in this way’

by Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor, Inland Register

(From the Jan. 17, 2008 edition of the Inland Register)

Mary Butler has served as the diocese’s Victims Assistance Coordinator since summer of 2003. She recently announced her retirement from that position, effective Jan. 31.

Her replacement is Roberta Smith, who will begin work Feb. 1. Smith’s background includes extensive experience in the psychiatric field, including leadership positions in Sacred Heart Medical Center’s Psychiatric Department for over 20 years.

Smith also has served as a volunteer specializing in critical stress debriefing, and is a member of the clinical faculty staff of Spokane Community College’s nursing department.

Butler was a retired vice president of Sacred Heart Medical Center, Spokane, when she took on her new role for the diocese. It began, as so many things do, with coffee and a memory.

Among the requirements of the U.S. bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, passed at their historic meeting in Dallas, is that each diocese have on staff a Victims’ Assistance Coordinator. A psychologist who was working with the diocese on formulating Safe Environment practices knew Butler from years past, knew she was retired, was familiar with her abilities and skills, and invited her out for coffee to talk about the situation.

“I had to meditate” on the offer to take the position, said Butler during a recent interview at the Catholic Pastoral Center in Spokane. “I had been on the East Coast” when the scandal in Boston broke, she said. “They announced there was going to be a meeting of the pope, the cardinals, and the other bishops, in Rome, and I remember thinking, ‘They need a woman’” to be part of the process – to provide “a contrast, a complementary role.”

It took some time for her to agree to the position. “Basically, I was thinking, ‘I’m not going to do this, because I’m retired,’” she said.

In a September 2003 interview in the Inland Register, right after she began her work, Butler said, “I love the Church. To use my experience, what I’ve learned, from my lifetime in hospital administration, to be a small part of the healing that the Church needs right now, gave me a challenge I didn’t want to miss. I felt that this was the Lord saying to me that he wanted to use me in a small way. That’s a comforting thought….”

She uses different terms to describe her very complex role of the last four years. She has tried to serve as a “compassionate listener” for the victims. She’s been “the interface with the victims, because … a lot of victims did not want to be talking to a priest or a bishop about their injury, and they felt a woman would be important and a good addition.” Most victims who have come forward, in fact, have asked to meet with her, rather than with an ordained member of diocesan administration.

She didn’t just wait for victims to come forward. She actively sought out victims, getting out word as often as possible, in as many ways as possible – that she was available, that she was ready to help in any way she could, that she wanted to meet with victims and help them. She met with groups large and small – parishes, personnel, ministry organizations, clubs. She worked with the diocese’s Communications Office to create an awareness-raising brochure regarding sexual abuse, in both English and Spanish, and distributed those brochures wherever she was allowed, including parishes, public buildings, medical clinics, and anywhere else. The brochures were revised a year ago and distributed again.

She described what she called “many sacred moments over the past four years, with people sharing their stories” as she walked with them on their journey toward healing, seeing “some rays of light occur with them … (it was) very encouraging.”

Contacts with victims – somewhere in the neighborhood of 40-50 – always happened in the setting of the victim’s choice. The contact might come in the form of a letter, or a phone call. She tried to be absolutely clear about what her role might be in helping the victims – how she would follow up, how she would get back to them. “That would be the start,” she said.

Sometimes that was enough – helping connect with counseling services, perhaps, or sharing other available resources. Other times, it was a matter of a number of conversations and contacts, and always, listening with compassion to the individual, unique stories of those who had been abused by diocesan priests and other personnel.

She has nothing but good to say about diocesan personnel with whom and for whom she worked, describing Bishop Skylstad and Father Steve Dublinski, the diocese’s Vicar General, as “totally real, honest, sincere, and wanting to do the best for everybody.” There was genuine respect for her opinions about situations, and an openness to the communication that left her feeling “very informed. I never felt in the dark about any issue.”

She is also “deeply appreciative” of the expertise, wisdom, and dedication of the Diocesan Review Board, whose members examine accusations of abuse and make recommendations to the bishop.

Fundamentally, she said, “I guess that I have a belief that if people are listened to and believed, that acknowledges them, and it’s the first step to their healing. I had to make sure that while I was listening I wasn’t giving off any non-verbal (messages) that would interfere with that process of affirming them.”

Like so many roles in professions dedicated to helping others, the Victims’ Assistance Coordinator played a part that could be physically, psychologically, and spiritually exhausting. What kept her going?

“The people that I’m working with here” in the Catholic Pastoral Center, she said. “My own sense of commitment and determination to do a good job.” Meeting with other Coordinators, nationally, on an annual basis gave her opportunities “not only for information and updates, but a time for networking … (the meetings) were always very energizing for me.”

At the core of her commitment was “my Faith – I prayed my way through probably every encounter I had with a victim, because sometimes I had no idea what to say.” She is fond of the prayer she attributed to Fran-ciscan Father Mychal Judge, who died ministering in the World Trade Center bombings:

“Lord, take me where you want me to go;
Let me meet who you want me to meet;
Tell me what you want me to say, and
Keep me out of your way.”

The work was not without its frustrations, often arising from trying to deal with other dioceses or with Religious communities who were not as ready to try to help those who had been hurt by their personnel. While many dioceses and Religious communities were very professional and caring, others “didn’t seem to have the same appreciation of how important it was to give some acknowledge-ment” to the victims – that the victims had been heard, had been believed, and would at least be provided some counseling. It was not unusual for the Spokane Diocese to pay for up to six sessions of counseling for victims who had been abused in other dioceses, even though Spokane may or may not be reimbursed eventually for that cost, while contact with the other diocese or Religious community was being made. “Not everybody is as conscientious” as Spokane on that point, said Butler.

Butler also has been a member of Providence Associates, laity who share the charism of the Sisters of Providence. That formation of her spiritual life has had an impact on how she approached her work on behalf of abuse victims.

“The mission of the Sisters of Providence is to care for the poor,” said Butler. “Not necessarily the economic poor, but the people who have been disadvantaged.” She believes that her work for the victims was “very much what the founders of the Sisters of Providence would have seen as a need, and made a commitment to,” she said.

One of the lessons she learned along the way – one thing she wishes she’d done differently – was to organize various paper trails a little more clearly. Part of her role was to help with documentation of the diocese’s annual audit, in regard to compliance with the Charter.

She also wishes she had been able to get into the parishes more often, or be of “greater service to the priests,” she said. It took a while, perhaps, for some of the pastors to understand what her role really meant.

“The community needed to hear a lot more – not only about the frequency of sexual abuse, not just the Church, but the whole region the Church is located in,” as well. Toward that end, two “town hall” gatherings on the subject of sexual abuse and community resources were held – one at St. Thomas More Parish in Spokane, one at St. Mary Parish in Spokane Valley. “Sexual abuse is so prevalent in homes,” she said, not just youth activities and organizations, or in Catholic churches.

“I really do feel like it’s been a privilege to serve in this way,” she said. “If I facilitated the healing process for even one or two people during this period of time, it would have been worth my while.”

From Bishop Skylstad:

During the implementation of the Charter for the Protection of Youth and Children approved by the U.S. Catholic Bishops in 2002, much has happened within the Catholic Church to make sure that the tragedy of sexual abuse will never happen again.

One of the directives of the Charter was the hiring of a victim assistance coordinator. How fortunate we were in the diocese to obtain the services of Mary Butler, a retired ececutive from Sacred Heart Medical Center.

Over these last five years, Mary has accomplished her work with superb dedication, skill, caring, and commitment. I have found her work and wisdom to be of tremendous assistance. We all should be most grateful for her service.

As she retires from the position of Victim Assistance Coordinator, I express profound gratitude and prayerful best wishes for much peace, joy and gratitude in her life as she once again retires.

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