VAC Interview: Erin Neil, Diocese of Bridgeport

Please tell us a little bit about yourself. Do you have a family? Where did you go to school?

I grew up in Fairfield CT and I currently live in Litchfield County with my husband Philip and daughter, Maeve. I received a Bachelor of Science degree in Clinical Psychology from Xavier University and a Master’s Degree in Clinical Social Work from Southern CT State University with a specialization in Clinical Mental Health and Substance Abuse. I am a licensed clinical social worker in the State of CT.

How long have you been a VAC? What drew you to this work?

I was hired by Bishop William E. Lori in 2003 as the founding director of the Safe Environment program and in 2008, I began serving in the capacity as Victim Assistance Coordinator in addition to the Director position.  Prior to working with the Diocese, I worked in various counseling positions with adults and children who were diagnosed with cognitive and psychiatric disabilities. I was employed as a social worker with St. Christopher Ottilie in Sea Cliff, N.Y., and assisted children who had disabilities and were removed from their homes and placed in this care facility due to sexual abuse, physical abuse and neglect by a family member. I was deeply impacted by the children’s incredible stories of trauma and survival. It became clear to me that there were not enough social workers trained in the field of child sexual abuse prevention and victim advocacy.

Have you seen any changes of attitudes in the Church towards abuse survivors during your time working as a VAC?

Yes, absolutely in both the Safe Environment Program and in our Victim Assistance Ministry. In 2003 we implemented VIRTUS awareness training on child sexual abuse prevention and people were angry and did not understand why it would take years for a victim to come forward. There was little awareness about the lifelong impact that abuse has on a person.  There has been great progress since 2003 and over 130,000 adults and children have taken these trainings in our diocese. The most common feedback now is deep gratitude and a desire to get this training to programs everywhere.

In 2013, our victim assistance ministry was renewed under Bishop Frank J. Caggiano’s leadership. He began meeting with survivors as soon as he arrived in Bridgeport and we organized a listening session for survivors and one for family members. Bishop Caggiano also held open meetings for anyone in our diocese who would like to discuss the sexual abuse crisis and our diocesan response.  We met with survivors individually and in groups on a regular basis and a special group formed called the Committee for Healing.  It includes Survivors of Sexual Abuse as Minors by Priests, Bishop Caggiano and I, Michael Tintrup, L.C.S.W., Victim Assistance Counselor with Catholic Charities and two family members of victims. We have had priests on our committee who have been survivors and a survivor who entered the seminary. We plan opportunities for outreach and healing and we speak at various groups within our diocese including the Presbyterate,  School Principals, the Deaconate, Directors of Religious Education and survivors speak at VIRTUS training.  The survivors and their families play a critical role in everything we do in our Safe Environment office, including helping us to update our policies and procedures.

Our group participates in radio talk shows, newspaper and TV interviews, and videos which are available on our diocesan website. We planned a prayer service at Fairfield University and three annual Masses for Survivors together with Bishop Caggiano. One survivor from our group participated in the Human Library experience at Fairfield University where students could reserve a time to speak with her as part of their learning experience. Members from our group are open to speaking with anyone if they believe it will help bring awareness and healing, or if it will help someone personally.  We meet quarterly with the Bishop at the Catholic Center or his residence and now by zoom during Covid 19 as we plan for a January 20, 2021 Virtual Prayer Service.

What personal quality do you think helps you to be a good VAC?

I consider it a privilege and a ministry and I listen for as long as a person needs. Every person’s journey towards healing is unique and everyone’s time frame is different.  Survivors often share that they felt no one would believe them or they blame themselves. It is important for every VAC to assure the person calling from the very beginning that they are doing the right thing by coming forward. I recognize that it may have taken years for that person years to make the call and they have placed so much trust in me at that very moment. I take this very seriously.

How do you take care of your own mental health while doing this work? Where do you find support?

My faith in God, the support of my family, our Bishop, the survivors from our group and my amazing co-workers at the Catholic Center are all supports in my life. I don’t know how any person could do this work without each one of these in place, I also love animals and live on a small farm with hens, turkeys, sheep, goats and rabbits. I spin the wool that we shear from our sheep although I am not a great knitter.  My husband grew up on a dairy farm in Ireland and so I often rely on his expertise on animal care, mending fences and barns. It is something that we do together as a family.

What is a question that you wish people would ask you about your work, or about the work of the Church to help survivors today?

I wish more people would ask how they can become involved in the education and prevention work of the diocese.  We can all take steps to help our Church heal by taking a class and helping out with child safety in a school or parish. There are so many positive initiatives that are happening in every diocese. I know in my heart that the Catholic Church is becoming one the safest places in our community for children and while we still have work to do, there is so much good news to share.