Helping survivors a ministry of compassion for archdiocese's victim assistance coordinator

Tony Latarski, victim assistance coordinator for the Archdiocese of Detroit, talks with moderator of the curia Fr. Jeffrey Day at the archdiocesan Chancery building in downtown Detroit. Latarski strives to be a voice of empathy and walk with survivors in any way they need it. (Detroit Catholic file photo)

In light of the 20th anniversary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People," which outlined reforms to the U.S. Church's response to the sexual abuse crisis, Detroit Catholic is republishing a three-part series about how the Archdiocese of Detroit responds to, works to prevent and seeks to help victims of sexual abuse. All materials related to the Archdiocese’s report on the 20th Anniversary of the Dallas Charter are available at www.aod.org/dallascharter.

DETROIT — As victim assistance coordinator for the Archdiocese of Detroit, Tony Latarski serves as a compassionate listener, proactive advocate, and a partner for survivors of abuse and their families. His ministry puts Latarski on the front lines of the archdiocese’s commitment to caring for those who’ve suffered grave indignities at the hands of church representatives, accompanying individuals on their road to recovery and healing.

All 197 dioceses and eparchies in the United States have a victim assistance coordinator, a position created in 2002 through the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which was adopted by the U.S. bishops as a response to the national clergy sexual abuse crisis. Its creation went hand in hand with the inauguration of the national VIRTUS program, Protecting God’s Children, a mandatory training for all church employees and volunteers designed to raise awareness about abuse and how to prevent it from happening to children and vulnerable adults in the community.

Latarski is ideally suited for such a ministry. During his previous career in law enforcement, he witnessed firsthand horrific crimes and human suffering.

“I know what they are going through. You can’t erase things that happened to you,” he said. “When people call, you just have to be patient and listen. Let them tell their story and then work with them.

“We ask, ‘How are you doing? How can we help you?’ We always recommend therapy and we get that immediately for them.”

Therapy sessions for victim-survivors are provided by master’s level social workers and psychologists skilled in working with survivors of physical, sexual, emotional abuse or post-traumatic stress. It is is paid for by the archdiocese. Victims are also offered the opportunity to meet with Archbishop Allen Vigneron to tell their story, if they so choose.

When an allegation is reported, the archdiocese turns over the case to law enforcement, no matter when the abuse took place. It also alerts the archdiocesan Review Board, chaired by retired Michigan Court of Appeals Judge Michael Talbot and comprised of experts in specific fields. Like Protecting God’s Children, the Review Board is a product of the 2002 Charter.

If a claim is determined to be credible, (meaning it has a “semblance of truth,” appears to be or could even possibly be true), the accused priest or deacon is immediately restricted from ministry. Names of restricted and removed clergy, as well as those under investigation by civil authorities, are published on the Archdiocese of Detroit website. The list includes priests from religious orders and deceased clergy who have been credibly accused. Local media are contacted whenever a new name is added.

One question Latarski often asks when he receives survivor’s call: “How did you decide to come forward now?”

“They finally have the courage to tell their story, and they don’t want this to happen to anybody else,” he said. “Just to have that courage to come forward, it’s hard. I can tell you, it’s hard to speak up and say, ‘I was abused and I want to talk about it.’”

Latarski served as a Protecting God’s Children facilitator when it was launched shortly after the Dallas Charter was drafted.

“This was at a time when we had lots of priests who were being removed from ministry. When we were first doing this, it was at the peak,” Latarski said. “At first, there was resistance from individuals going through training. You have to remember, every one of them also had a criminal background check done on them. They’d ask, ‘Why do I have to do this?’

“Our answer was, ‘Yes, we are going to do this. It is part of our DNA; we are going to protect children,’” Latarski said.

Attitudes have dramatically changed in the 20 years since, Latarski said.

“Now we understand it. We appreciate it. If we hear a child say, ‘I don’t like being with Mrs. Jones or Mr. Smith,’ – and if we’ve been through the training – maybe some flags go up. That is why we emphasize: Report, report, report. If we save one kid, we’ve done our job. That is what we are there for.”

The archdiocese has come a long way, said Nancy Diehl, former prosecutor and Chief of the Trial Division for Wayne County.

“Our focus now is on the victims and their welfare, thank goodness. There’s been remarkable progress in terms of the protocols in place,” said Diehl, a longtime Review Board member and founder of the first child abuse unit in the state of Michigan designed to prosecute adults for felony abuse. “The archdiocese wants to be very transparent and provide information it has to the proper authorities. I think that’s a very good thing.”

Sister Frances Nadolny, OP, previously served as superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Detroit and as a facilitator of Protecting God’s Children. A 13-year Review Board member, Sister has also seen a culture shift.

“Victims don’t have to be embarrassed or ashamed. Quite often that is how the victim felt; people told them not to say anything,” said Sr. Nadolny, general council administrator for the Dominican Sisters in Adrian. “Awareness helps to cure a lot of things. People see that it takes personal courage to come forward, but once they do come forward, they know the archdiocese will address it.”

Ned McGrath, director of public affairs for the archdiocese, sees evidence that the pastoral approach, focused on justice for victim-survivors, is working.

“I can think of three cases where someone has seen a name in a [news] article and called us to say, ‘I was abused decades ago by that person, too, but I never had the courage to tell anybody.’ That is exactly what should happen: the person coming forward, getting counseling and whatever else they need from us,” McGrath said. “Sometimes, they’ve worked through it and thank God are already at peace with it; they just want us to know what happened.”

Msgr. William Tindall, veteran Review Board member and pastor of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Livonia – the first archdiocesan parish to host Protecting God’s Children training – sees progress in light of both the 2002 Charter and the archdiocese’s determination to prevent abuse in its communities.

“The Charter provides standards for all the dioceses to live by,” said Msgr. Tindall. “The Archdiocese of Detroit has made a very strong commitment to making sure everything is in place to protect young people today.

“Archbishop Vigneron is very committed to this work; we want to make sure that no one becomes a victim. And if it should happen, all resources are put toward that person.”

McGrath said he understands that having endured such pain, some victims lose their faith.

“But I’m always amazed at the number of people who have been abused, deal with the aftermath, and still have their faith. We have learned a lot from these people in many ways,” McGrath said. “I just look at that and think, ‘Something is working here that is bigger than me, for them to have their faith after all that has happened.’ Good for them, and good for the Church.’”

Individuals with knowledge of sexual abuse by clergy or other Church representatives are urged to contact local law enforcement and/or the Michigan Attorney General’s Office at (844) 324-3374 or [email protected].

Individuals also may contact the Archdiocese of Detroit by visiting protect.aod.org or by calling the 24/7 victim assistance line at (866) 343-8055 or by emailing [email protected]. There are no time limits or restrictions on individuals wishing to report abuse.

For more information on the Archdiocese of Detroit’s response to abuse and commitment to preventing future incidents from occurring in our communities, please visit protect.aod.org.



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