Voices to prevent abuse: Sisters Cathy White and Cathy Campbell
Sister Cathy White tells the story of a girl who had been sexually abused. She told her mom about it. Her mom told her that she was lying — her uncle would never do that.
“That child has no voice, and I have a pretty big one,” Sister Cathy said. “I continue in this ministry because I feel I can have a voice for the voiceless.”
Sister Cathy has ministered in the Office of Child and Youth Protection for the diocese of San Bernardino, Calif., for 10 years. She currently serves as director.
She oversees programs to train adults who work with children to recognize signs of abuse and methods to prevent it. She and other staff members provide retreats to help victims and families affected by abuse find healing. Sister Cathy also acts as a support system for church personnel and members in reporting and handling abuse situations.
Education and prevention
If children and adults know the signs of perpetrators, the grooming signs, then they are in a good position to ensure that abuse doesn’t happen, Sister Cathy said.
“Every child who isn’t abused is a success for me,” she said.
A 2006 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that approximately 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men in the United States are sexually abused before the age of 18.
The Catholic Church in the United States began establishing offices such as this in 2003 in response to the clergy sex abuse crisis.
“What we can do to prevent sexual abuse happening in the Catholic Church is to be proactive in preventing it from happening in society,” she said. “The church is a microcosm of society. If it happens in society, it is going to happen in the church, too.”
Sister Cathy came to this ministry after being a teacher and principal most of her life. In applying for a principal position in 2004, she was told about an open position in the Office of Child and Youth Protection.
“As a principal I had seen enough abuse in families that I thought, you know, this [position] is a good thing. So I changed course,” she said.
One of the most rewarding parts of her ministry is helping victims of abuse move forward through a series of retreats. 30 people attended the one held last month.
“It is an ongoing process that victims have to come back and be in touch with the church and know the church is there to support them. Many people thought the abuse scandal meant the church didn’t care. Well, this church cares,” she said.
The retreats are one way of experiencing that care and moving toward healing.
“God is there to be with them. It is not a miracle cure. God walks with us. God doesn’t necessarily cure us. God provides the grace. We need to take the grace and walk with it,” she said.
“I really want people to understand that abuse, whether sexual, physical, emotional — any abuse — follows the victim for the rest of their lives.”
As an educator, Sister Cathy knows the need for better education surrounding abuse. And she’s up for the task of educating others.
The need to know
“People aren’t aware that abusers are everywhere. They are coaches and jail guards, teachers and fathers; mothers, sisters and brothers. They are doctors and police. There is no stratum of society where you can’t find an abuser at some point,” she said.
“Many people think an abuser is a stranger. It’s not. It’s usually someone the child knows and trusts.”
Helping adults understand these things and recognize warning signs is a step forward.
“We all have to know about this,” she said. “What’s the adage? ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’”
Her office provides training programs and support to the village in raising the children.
Parish staff and volunteers come to her as a resource in determining what to report and how to report.
“At the diocesan level this office helps the folks have one place to go when they have a problem. It allows people to deal with it at more ground-roots levels by having one place to go. I have been told many times what a help it is to have our office to call and work through a problem — that people wouldn’t be able to do it without that support.”
Sister Cathy feels the support and care from her community of sisters. She is happy a second Sister of Providence recently began ministering in this area.
Sister Cathy Campbell (formerly Sister Christian) is that sister. In January she began coordinating the Circle of Grace program for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. The program was published by the Archdiocese of Omaha in 2007 and adopted by Indianapolis in 2012. It helps students figure out what healthy relationships to invite in and what unhealthy relationships to keep out, Sister Cathy C. explained.
“My task is to ensure that key school, parish faith formation, and youth ministry personnel are trained in each parish or school to implement the Circle of Grace program. They, in turn, train their colleagues or catechists, who are responsible for assuring that every youth from kindergarten through grade 12 learns that s/he is a unique creation of a loving God who surrounds every one of us with a circle of grace so that we can develop healthy relationships and resist those that might become abusive,” she said.
Empowering the children
“It is a very positive program that engages children and teens in using age appropriate materials and activities so that they feel empowered to make good choices, to set appropriate boundaries, and to develop a game plan with a ‘trusted adult,’ to whom they can go if something does happen.” Sister Cathy C. said.
Before joining the archdiocesan staff, Sister Cathy C. was a school administrator and campus minister who trained adults in Virtus, another sex abuse awareness program for church personnel.
“What I am doing now is a natural next step in my ministry,” she said. “I feel very passionate about the need to ensure that young people feel empowered. It’s about breaking cycles in many ways.
“We live in a world and in a culture that sends a lot of conflicting messages about the value of one’s own person. Watch television shows. People are used as the objects of other’s exploitations. It is important for children to be able to critique that message and see that they are valuable and they are not objects and that they can develop healthy relationships,” she said.
(Originally published in the Summer 2014 issue of HOPE magazine.)