Informal support networks arise from unique healing role

Michael O’Connor meets with Maureen O’Hearn, Co-ordinator for Healing and Support in the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle, and learns about her unique role.

Informal support networks arise from unique healing role

Sadly, there is a certain, awful sense in which the words, "the hand that hurts is the hand that heals" (Job 5:18) apply to the Healing and Support service provided for people affected by sexual abuse at the hands of Church personnel.


The hands that hurt were those of priests and others who, while acting in ways completely contrary to the teaching and practice of Christ and the mission of the Church, were part of the Church.


The hands that heal – that reach out to aid healing – are instrumental in the role of Co-ordinator for Healing and Support in the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle – a role filled by Maureen O'Hearn.


Maureen, a Social Worker with many years experience in government and non-government roles, was seconded to her position in December 2007. Bishop Michael Malone had invited those affected directly or indirectly by the criminal behaviour of church personnel to approach Zimmerman Services (Diocesan Child Protection Unit) for support.


The response was so overwhelming that a Healing and Support branch was needed and established. Bishop Michael's innovation is the only such dedicated service in New South Wales. Recruitment for a second pair of hands is happening now at the instigation of Bishop Bill Wright.


The hands that heal rely firstly on ears that hear. Maureen's role is to hear the stories of those affected by abuse and, most importantly, to hear the needs and to respond. The role of Co-ordinator Healing and Support is to offer support to those directly affected by childhood sexual abuse perpetrated by Church personnel within the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle on their unique road to healing.


There are needs for referrals to appropriate services – counselling for emotional, relational, financial and drug and alcohol issues, for example. There are needs which arise from the complexities of dealing with police, with representatives of the law and its processes. There is the need for correct information concerning rights and services. There is need for advocacy, liaison, support, and – so very necessary – a need to be kept informed about what is happening with 'my complaint'.


We have heard so much of the pain and suffering of those affected by sexual abuse. Can we dare to hope that Maureen sees good outcomes? Yes, but sadly, not always.


For some, the impact of the abuse is so great that it is very difficult to reach a stage of resolution and for some, suicide has been the only option they can see. But for others there is hope. "The abuse will always be a part of their lives," says Maureen, "but hopefully with the right support and time it can be managed so that while it is still a part of life it doesn't always dominate life." Maureen talks about progress being very gradual.


The story of Bill (not his real name) is such an example. Bill, aged in his 70s, was abused as a young child by a priest. At 12, he was brave enough to tell his mother. This is quite unusual as most people do not disclose the abuse for some 20, 30, 40 years or longer. However, he was severely dealt with for making such a terrible slur against a priest. At that time it was impossible for his mother to believe that such things could occur. Bill stayed silent for another 30 years until he was asked by his then parish priest why he did not attend Mass when his children attended the local Catholic school. Bill told the priest of the abuse and his response was that it was a long time ago and Bill should be able to move on. Again Bill felt unsupported and dismissed. Bill suffered his silence for another 30 years.


When moved to reach out in his senior years he phoned Healing and Support at Zimmerman Services eight times, only to hang up every time before he again had the courage to share his story. When he finally spoke to Maureen he could not venture to an appointment at the office. He was afraid that someone would see him and he did not want anyone else to know – Bill still felt that undeserved sense of guilt and shame. So Maureen went to him. Maureen kept going as needed.


Mighty progress for Bill – but more to come. In time Bill did venture from home to the office. What's more, he felt empowered to progress to a helping and supporting role for others who had been affected by abuse. He made his unique contribution within a group of others who had been abused – offering them guidance and advice and letting them know that there is hope.


Maureen has arranged such groups for both women and men, utilising the contributions that survivors can provide for one another. An informal setting, drinking coffee and talking, has required little more in the way of structure. Informal networks of support have emerged from these settings. Above all, for many, hope has been able to emerge.


One of Maureen's roles has been to attend Courts and similar settings to offer moral and emotional support. Maureen anticipates greater prominence for the role in the upcoming Royal Commission as has been the case with the Special Commission of Inquiry where she has facilitated meetings and attended as a support person.


The role of Co-ordinator Healing and Support is not without its challenges. People who support an accused person and believe in his innocence sometimes do not feel comfortable with a role that facilitates and supports those making the complaints. Others pose such questions as, "Why would victims go to the organisation that caused the abuse?" and some people think it odd that a diocese would employ someone to support those who are making allegations about other people within the same organisation. "Consequently, initially some people are a bit suspicious or mistrusting. Whilst we encourage people to make contact with us, this is simply one of the options," says Maureen. "Of course some people will not trust the Church and their first approach will be to the Police or a solicitor and that is completely understandable."


Maureen does what she can to right wrongs. She is heartened by comments such as those made by Bill whose story was referred to earlier. Bill once said, "I would never have believed that simply talking about this, not the details of the abuse, but about how it makes you feel could make such a difference. It is just talking but you feel such an incredible sense of relief – like a weight has been lifted – just to know that people believe you."

To contact Maureen, please P Zimmerman Services 4979 1390.

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