The Role of A Victim Assistance Coordinator

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The Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown has a moral obligation to try to provide healing and reconciliation for victims of sexual abuse by anyone in Church services whether that abuse is recent or occurred in the past.  The ministry of the Victim Assistance Coordinator (VAC) is an integral part of the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown’s policy for response to allegations of sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable adults.  This special ministry was established by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” in 2002, (http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/child-and-youth-protection/charter.cfm) and is built on compassion for those who are hurting, wounded, and feeling violated.  The Victim Assistance Coordinator is the face of the Church’s response to all victims. 

When a call is received by a victim who is hurting, embarrassed, afraid, confused, unsure of what to do next, they are connected with a Victim Assistance Coordinator who listens while the victim shares their story. 

Anger of how situations were handled by the Church in the past is one of the many emotions a victim expresses. Some victims have never told their story of abuse and are desperately searching for a way to find peace. They may even feel guilt that they never came forward and prevented others from being victimized. The range of feelings and emotions victims feel is wide and heartbreaking – from self-doubt to serious unmet mental health needs even to skepticism that the Church will really help.  The Victim Assistance Coordinator’s primary role is to guide victims and their families as they begin their long journey towards peace and reconciliation. 

In 2016, Jean D. Johnstone was appointed as the Victim Assistance Coordinator for the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown to assist victims (minors, adult survivors, and victim’s families) of sexual abuse by clergy or other Diocesan personnel for the purpose of healing.

Jean has a long history of providing direction and support to individuals and families. As a graduate of Penn State University, she holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Early Childhood Education and a Master’s Degree in Public Administration. Her early career started in California where she used her educational background as the team leader for an infant development program in Los Angeles. The program served abused infants and toddlers who were wards of the LA court system. In collaboration with the Child Abuse Team at Children’s Hospital – Los Angeles, she worked with both children and parents to successfully reunite families.

Jean continued her work with young children while living in Los Angeles, Oakland and Redding, CA. Her last position in California was as the Director of Big Brother & Big Sisters of Shasta County.

After returning to central Pennsylvania in 1990, she worked as the Human Services Director for Blair County, and the Chief Operating Officer for Easter Seals of Central PA/Children’s Services for the Home Nursing Agency. In 1998, she took a job as Vice President of Mission at Bon Secours-Holy Family Hospital. After 10 years, she left to become the current Executive Director of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, a position which she still holds today.

For the past 10 years, she has been responsible for programming in three Catholic Charities offices located in Altoona, Johnstown and State College – providing services for the eight counties of the diocese – Bedford, Blair, Cambria, Centre, Clinton, Fulton, Huntingdon and Somerset. She is also responsible for the oversight of the Martha & Mary House – an Emergency Shelter Program in Johnstown which serves homeless men, women and children in Cambria County.

Jean’s role as our Victim Assistance Coordinator supports adults who have been abused as children within the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.  All dioceses have personnel to work with adult victims of abuse as minors. 

Once a call is received by telephone, email or letter, the person who initially made the call is contacted usually within 24 hours.  The hardest, but the most important, step for a victim to do is to tell the story of their abuse.  An in-person meeting or a conversation over the telephone is arranged with the VAC and the victim or victim’s representative (family, friend, etc.).

Once the initial facts are documented, the Victim Assistance Coordinator will offer counseling assistance and inform the victim of other community services including local Victim Services agencies within our region (https://youthprotection.dioceseaj.org/victim-services/ ).  An assessment involving other individual or family needs is reviewed and if necessary, referrals to community partners are made.   

All necessary legal reports are provided to Pennsylvania’s ChildLine and the county District Attorney where the abuse occurred, and to the Bishop’s Office.  The privacy and confidentiality of the victim is always a priority. 

Victims are informed if the perpetrator is still in ministry.  The VAC keeps the victim notified of each step during the process and remains a resource for the victim.  Victims are never alone… the Victim Assistance Coordinator is only a phone call away. 

In the event a victim has retained legal representation, any information about available resources is provided between the diocesan legal counsel and the victim’s legal counsel.  Victims are strongly encouraged to make use of counseling opportunities, and the Victim Assistance Coordinator strives to inform them about resources available through community partners. (https://youthprotection.dioceseaj.org/survivor-resources/)

The Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown is committed the care of the victims of sexual abuse and their families. The damage caused by sexual abuse of minors is devastating and long-lasting. We pray for the healing and forgiveness to each victim for the grave harm that has been inflicted on them and their families. If you are a victim and was abused as a child within our diocese or a relative or friend of a victim we encourage you to report.   

If you suspect neglect or abuse of a minor which is a child currently under the age 18, please call PA ChildLine at 1-800-932-0313 (available 24/7). If there is an indication of imminent danger, you should call 911 immediately.

For more information on reporting abuse of a minor or an adult victimized as a child please visit: https://youthprotection.dioceseaj.org/child-abuse-and-reporting/.