In July, psychotherapist Stephanie Delmore began working as victim assistance coordinator (VAC) for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. She recently spoke with Awake Blog editor Erin O’Donnell about why she took on this role, and what her work with victim-survivors of abuse involves.
Awake: Tell us about your personal and professional background.
Stephanie Delmore: Sure. I’ve been a counselor for about 25 years. I did a master’s in clinical psychology, and for many years worked in community mental health centers. We lived in the Chicago suburbs for many years. My husband’s job took us to Connecticut and then back to Wisconsin. I grew up in this area, in Waukesha County, and went to Catholic Memorial for high school.
In community mental health I did a lot of individual work with children, adolescents, and adults, and then family therapy. About 12 years ago I moved into private practice. I’d done a lot of trauma work in community mental health, but when I moved into the private practice I did EMDR [Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing] training and certification. My clinical practice became very trauma-focused. I worked with survivors of all kinds of abuse, including some clergy-abuse survivors here in Milwaukee. About 10 years ago I had an interest in working in the schools, and Mount Mary offers a program that they call post-master’s certification for anyone who has a master’s degree in counseling or social work, which allows you to make up any deficiencies in the Department of Public Instruction’s school counseling requirements. In the previous three years, I’ve been a counselor at a Catholic elementary school in the Archdiocese while doing private practice at the same time.
Q. What exactly does a victim assistance coordinator (VAC) do?
A. It’s interesting. Now that I’ve been connecting with VACs across the country through the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops [USCCB] trainings and information, I really appreciate that no two VACs function the same. So much of what happens is specific to that archdiocese—if they’re urban or rural, their population, and where the community is in the process of victims coming forward.
The primary functions of my role are first to take reports from abuse survivors. There’s a number that they can call, and I will meet with them over the phone, by Zoom, or in person. If somebody is uncomfortable meeting at Mary Mother of the Church Pastoral Center, I’ve worked with Catholic Charities to make their regional offices available so I can go meet them in Waukesha or Fond du Lac or wherever if that feels like a more neutral location.
I receive intake calls and then the intake goes through our process. The Archdiocese provides financial support for counseling and therapy for survivors. So, I work with the survivor to connect with their therapist and facilitate the payments for therapy. I also facilitate any kind of spiritual support they would need. Some survivors like to meet with the Archbishop and have a personal conversation, or other clergy are available for support. If somebody needs help connecting with a therapist, I can work with them in whatever location they are to help find a therapist for support.
Q. Why did you decide to apply for the VAC position?
A. I really think God’s hand was in that. I’m on LinkedIn, and I got this email back in January: “LinkedIn thinks you would be a perfect match for this job,” and it was the job at the Archdiocese. So, I printed it out, and I thought, “I don’t know. This seems really heavy.” The paper sat on the corner of my desk for about a month. I think God put it on my heart. There’s no other explanation. About a month later, I applied, I interviewed in the spring, and then I started July 1.
To do an adequate job in this role I think you to have to understand trauma and how to be present with abuse survivors. When I attended a training for victim assistance coordinators from the USCCB, they said the average VAC is only in the role for 18 months. It is heavy work. But I think that I have enough experience and professional boundaries that I can listen to someone’s story and be compassionate, but I don’t have to be overwhelmed by it, if that makes sense.
Q. So your job has two parts, right? In addition to serving as VAC, you also work with Catholic schools in the Archdiocese, correct?
A. Yes. It’s an interesting merger for me professionally of my clinical counseling background and my school counseling background. The schools piece came about because Suzanne Nickolai, the safe environment program manager, was getting a lot of calls from schools and parishes that were more mental health questions, related to suicide, risk assessment, and other things that had happened that fall more in the mental health range. Catholic schools superintendent Dr. Kathleen Cepelka saw a need to provide more support to school staff, both for the staff themselves and also helping educate them on how to meet the social, emotional, and mental health needs of students, because the level of mental health needs among children has really escalated in the last 10 years.
Q. Stephanie, what is your faith background?
A. I’m a cradle Episcopalian. I was raised in the Episcopal church and currently attend an Episcopal church. But as I mentioned, I attended Catholic Memorial and worked in an Archdiocese school. So I understand and respect the tradition. Actually, it’s funny. I have three siblings, and we all married Catholics. In our family there’s a real respect and honor of both faith traditions. I think there was some question when I was hired, would it be okay to hire a non-Catholic? But I think my background and experience are a good fit for the position, and that was key.
Q. A victim-survivor once told me that she felt that the VAC position was designed mainly to help people who were abused as children. Can you help people abused as adults?
A. This role came about in response to the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. Archdioceses are required to have a person in that role, and you’re right that it initially was created to respond to allegations of abuse of children. But I think as a society we’re moving into an awareness that the abuse of individuals by clergy or other people in ministry isn’t relegated just to children. I think there is a shift and an awareness of the need to support people of any age. Just to be clear, if someone is over 18 and has an experience, I am here to support them, to take the report, to work with law enforcement, all of the things that would happen with minors.
Q. Awake also has heard from victim-survivors in various archdioceses that their parents felt unsupported and very alone in their pain. Are you available to help families of victim-survivors?
A. Yes. If they come forward and need support, yes, definitely.
Q. Is your role mainly to wait for survivors to contact you and then respond? How do you see your role?
A. The role, primarily, is to receive reports and give assistance to people who make reports. Outreach gets tricky in that there’s confidentiality needed with abuse survivors. You can’t just send a mailing to their house. Their spouse or family may not even know they experienced abuse. You can’t risk breaking confidentiality in that way. So we have to figure out how to navigate that. Some of it is just getting the word out there. I’m also watching what other VACs are doing, in St.Paul Minneapolis, for example.
Q. What would you say to victim-survivors who might read this and feel uneasy about reaching out to the Archdiocese for support?
A. I’m happy to have a conversation with them. I know that for some people, email feels like a safer way to begin a conversation, rather than in person. I think Zoom is a good middle ground for some people too, in that they can have that face-to-face interaction, but there’s a buffer, and it’s different from being in person. I’m open to whatever they need.
Q. What would you want any victim-survivors who might read this to get about you and your role?
A. Well, I feel like Archbishop Listecki is very committed to this Archdiocese being a place of safety and support for abuse survivors. I feel he has a no-tolerance policy for abuse in his Archdiocese. I think we’re trying to do a good job in terms of supporting abuse survivors. There’s a lot of history in this Archdiocese, and across the country, of things not being as good as they could have been. So I think that there’s a genuine commitment for things to be different.
Every year all archdioceses have to submit an audit report based on the Charter for Protection of Children and Young People. There are minimum standards that are set for archdioceses in terms of safety, protection, and reporting and all of that. Milwaukee has really gone above and beyond in some of those areas. As pockets of abuse bubble up around the country, I think that there can be this feeling that nothing has changed, nothing has gotten better. Safe environment coordinator Suzanne Nickolai and I talked about this. How can the Archdiocese do a better job of communicating to the average Catholic in the pews about all that has happened? The education, background checks, and checks and balances that are in place today weren’t in place years ago. How can we do a better job of educating people about them?
We need them to know that this continues to remain in everyone’s mind at the Archdiocese. This isn’t, “Oh, this was all in the past. We don’t have to think about this.” I think some of remaining vigilant today is always being cognizant in remembering that past.
How to Contact Stephanie Delmore To reach Stephanie Delmore, victim assistance coordinator and employee support coordinator at the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, call 414-769-3332 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s response to clergy abuse, visit https://www.archmil.org/clergy-abuse-response.htm