November 11, 2019

A new certificate program at The Catholic University of America is educating Church leaders on the causes, prevention, and most empathetic responses to reports of sexual trauma and abuse. 

The Child Protection and Safe Environments certificate program was launched by The Catholic Project this fall, in conjunction with Catholic University’s National Catholic School of Social Service (NCSSS) and the School of Theology and Religious Studies. The Catholic Project is the University’s response to the sexual abuse crisis, which seeks to renew and build up the Church. In the past year it has held a series of conferences on the sexual abuse crisis, including a one-day encounter between survivors of sexual abuse and Church leaders.

Eileen Dombo, an associate professor in social work, was a leader in designing the certificate program. She hopes the courses will provide a more intensive training for Church leaders on the effects of trauma and sexual abuse, so that they can more effectively respond to survivors and navigate difficult conversations around sexual violence. Thanks to Vatican norms for reporting abuse and violence, every diocese in the United States has a victim assistance coordinator or advocate to work on sexual-trauma-related issues. Still, she says, the training programs for these positions are often limited, or non-existent. 

“We want to make sure anyone in any setting who comes forward to receive healing is treated with the proper response and care,” Dombo says. “When people don’t have the right training, they might say something they shouldn’t say or neglect to do something they should, which could further harm the victim.”

Stephen White, executive director of The Catholic Project, says this program is a reflection of the unique expertise offered at Catholic University across disciplines, including theology, philosophy, business, law, and social work. Students in the certificate program — including seminarians, social workers, and aspiring church leaders — are required to complete four courses in the fields of theology, social work, and law, culminating with a capstone research project of their own choosing. 

“We have a unique mix of faculty and resources at our disposal enabling us to come at this complicated and multifaceted problem from a variety of angles,” he says. 

In the future, White hopes to expand the program online for students interested in creating safe environments around the world. 

“This is fulfilling a need for the Church and for society,” he says. “If we’re doing our job well, this program will be able to help other institutions and other faiths as well.” 

NCSSS master’s student Karen Jones decided to enroll in the certificate program because of experiences working in D.C.’s Ward 8 neighborhood for the past 20 years. In that time, she’s witnessed both the short and long-term impacts of sexual abuse and exploitation. 

“It is critical to prevent, address and decrease these instances of predatory behaviors in any venue,” Jones says. “The church, like school and home, should be safe havens, built and administered with human love, trust and respect.”

So far, Jones says she’s learned about common myths and misperceptions of sexual abuse, the specific nuances impacting victims, perpetrators, and the global impact of the abuse crisis. She thinks those topics — though difficult to discuss — will be crucial in helping to hold leaders accountable and protect children. 

“If we are not willing to discuss it and be honest about the level of accountability that is required to protect children and professionals, then we can expect to contribute to the continued creation of hurt people who hurt people and/or themselves,” she says. “It is my charge to heal, and this will assist in allowing me to access and serve those recovering, discovering, remembering, forgiving, healing or helping others heal.”  

For more information about the certificate program, contact dombo@cua.edu. 

— Katie Bahr, Assistant Director of Media Relations and Communications. Bahr can be reached at bahr@cua.edu.

Dombo spoke more in-depth on empathy and trauma-informed ministry during an episode of The Big Tree, a podcast and media evangelization initiative of Theological College. Listen to that podcast at https://www.buzzsprout.com/248684/1904642-5-things-a-social-worker-wants-a-priest-to-know-about-trauma-dr-eileen-dombo.

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