Moving forward

Assisting survivors of sexual abuse requires much emotional energy, and frontline workers in the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle appreciate their support networks.

The Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle launched the Office of Safeguarding (OoSG) during National Child Protection Week in September 2019. It forms part of an abiding commitment to promote the safety, welfare, and wellbeing of children and vulnerable adults, particularly those who participate in the life of the Diocese.

As part of the OoSG, Healing and Support (Zimmerman Service) continues to provide a highly personalised pastoral response in recognition that the pain and damage of institutional child sexual abuse is current each day for survivors and their families.

Deborah Diez, a Healing and Support caseworker, offers specialty support for those affected by institutional child sex abuse perpetrated by personnel of this Diocese. For 12 years before her current appointment, she worked in NSW Health on the wards, in the Sexual Assault Service and on the Joint Child Protection Response Program.

Trust is an issue for many survivors of institutional child sex abuse. Some have waited almost a lifetime before coming forward.

“One of the most powerful skills is listening,” Ms Diez says. “Listening gives way to reflection and this enables people to tune in to what they need to do. Their experience of mistrust in childhood impacts their style of attachment in relationships and that can stay with them throughout their lives.”

Sophie Dougherty is an OoSG investigator for the Prevention and Response Service. She was a member of NSW Police for 10 years and for the last five years of her service was a detective on the Child Abuse and Sex Crimes Squad.

“My duties involved investigating highly complex and confronting incidences of the criminal abuse of children,” Ms Dougherty says. “These included sex crimes, serious physical abuse or extreme neglect, and working with the children who had suffered or were currently suffering severe trauma.

“My role in the OoSG not only involves managing and identifying risk and responding to and investigating child protection incidents but also advising and providing practical support and education of safeguarding obligations to all those working with children and students in
the Diocese.”

It is a line of work with its own challenges.

“Having a great team of investigators around me helps through the challenging times,” she says. “And having two young children in primary school helps me understand the perspective of everyone involved in the matters I deal with.

“I understand that my role and the role of parents is to advocate what’s best for their child and understand the impact our involvement can have on a family. I also see through my children how hard teachers work and the challenges they face today.

“My workload can be stressful, and sometimes it is a thankless job. However, I see my role as a privilege to be involved in developing changes and promoting good outcomes for children and young people.”

Ms Diez says her work influences the parenting of her teenagers.

"I am more cautious around their socialising, relationships, and use of social media,” she says. “I am more concerned about their physical and emotional safety as well as their ability to act on their gut feel in the choices and decisions they make. This includes their being respectful in relationships and looking out for others.”

In dealing with survivors of institutional sex abuse, Ms Diez says she listens, believes, and supports. Referring clients to counselling helps them learn strategies to regulate their emotions and tolerate the distress. But hearing the harrowing cases takes a toll.

“I have a supportive team and manager to talk to,” she says. “I also have a supportive partner and self-care strategies such as yoga, deep breathing, and mindfulness that I practice daily to maintain resilience.”

Ms Diez says it is important she knows she has done the best for her clients. “Adverse childhood experiences have set an unfair life journey for them that I hope to help steer in a different direction,” she says. 

Ms Dougherty says she has often come home from work and thought about the privilege and love her children experience.

“As an employee, I feel proud and honoured to be part of a dedicated, caring and supportive team that is the OoSG,” she says. “As a parent, I am confident and reassured that all children and students in the Diocese, including my own, are embraced and protected by a safeguarding Church that acknowledges the crimes and failures of its past but has taken every step possible to ensure they never happen again."

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