VAC Interview: Heather Banis, Archdiocese of Los Angeles

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

I am the Victims Assistance Ministry Coordinator for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. I am blessed with a wonderful, growing family – in the last two years my husband and I celebrated the marriages of our two daughters, and we are now eagerly expecting the birth our first grandchild in a few weeks.

While my family is originally from Canada, we moved to California when I was seven years old and I grew up in the Los Angeles area. I have lived for brief times in other beautiful places – such as Seattle and Boston – but home is definitely in California where, within the radius of a one-hour drive, we can be at the beach and in the ocean, in the mountains on a ski-slope or in the desert under a star-filled sky.

As either a student, or professor, I have been in school most of my life. I studied psychology as an undergraduate at Occidental College (GO TIGERS!) and for much of the past 30 years I taught at the college level. I earned my M.A. and Ph.D. in clinical psychology at the University of Southern California (GO TROJANS!) and completed a post-doctoral fellowship in child and adolescent psychiatry at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center (GO BRUINS!). More recently, I earned my M.A. in theology and leadership from Gonzaga University (GO BULLDOGS!). So, as you can see, I love to learn, and I always have a team to root for in just about any sport you can imagine!

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

I am in my 5th year as VAC for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Prior to assuming that role, I had been a clinical consultant to Victims Assistance Ministry for almost 10 years. My 30+ year career has revolved around teaching at the college level, serving as a school psychologist to several independent schools, a small private practice, consulting, and tons of volunteer service to my parish, a retreat center, the Red Cross, and other agencies.

I must confess I never imagined I would be serving in the role I am in today. But with the advantage of hindsight, I can see how my professional development and my own spiritual journey have prepared me to be doing exactly what I am doing in the church. Professionally, I have an extensive background in trauma work, particularly with children and young people. This informs my ministry and my dedicated team in so many ways – from the moment we pick up the phone to respond to a new allegation, to the types of services we coordinate for a victim-survivor, to the outreach efforts we put in place, to the follow-up care we try to provide. Each of us strives to be victim-centric, trauma-informed, and therapeutic in all our efforts.

My faith journey has also been an important element in my work – I converted to Catholicism about 30 years ago, a process which caused me to ask difficult questions of myself, and of the church. Today, I feel blessed to be in a position where my professional responsibilities are fulfilled in service of the church. I truly believe the church is striving to acknowledge the harm done to clergy abuse victim-survivors, is actively and substantively engaged in nurturing healing for those harmed, and is continually coming to a deeper understanding of how to prevent such harm going forward. Much work remains to be done; the complexities of the clergy-abuse phenomenon continue to be revealed thereby demanding further response. Nevertheless, I am humbled to be a part of the healing efforts of the church and grateful that I can give voice to what I know as a trauma-trained psychologist, and most importantly, what I have learned from those whom I serve in this ministry.

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

Thankfully, I have seen changes – most notably, I am grateful that more and more of our church leaders have learned how critical it is to listen to victim-survivors themselves in order to truly understand the fullness and complexity of the clergy-abuse phenomenon. I believe that as leaders and survivors enter into relationship, the possibilities for growth, healing, and change abound. Parallel to this, I am grateful that lay people are increasingly recognized and respected for their contributions to the church’s response to the abuse phenomenon, and to the church overall. The voices informing church leadership are increasingly more diverse and bring the critical wisdom of lived experience to the ongoing dialogue – I am confident that within these growing relationships, change can and will continue to occur, even as I am impatient with the time it has taken.

What personal quality do you think someone needs to have in order to be a good VAC?

In my experience, at its heart, to be a “good” VAC is to be someone who can listen deeply and respond to what is heard with genuine compassion. First and foremost, this listening is critical to all interactions with victim-survivors. Fear, pain, and anger often envelop the disclosure of abuse and the manifestation of those emotions can overwhelm both the person disclosing and the person receiving the disclosure. To listen to all that is being communicated – that is the challenge. I hope and pray that I am able to listen deeply, and that in my response to the person disclosing, I convey a fullness of understanding, compassion and care that is truly representative of God’s unconditional love.

Secondly, I also believe, that being a “good” VAC is embodied in efforts to share what is heard and learned, to inform others about the scope and impact of the harm of clergy-sexual abuse – to communicate to those in positions of leadership, at all levels, what it means to have been betrayed and violated within the context of church. Listening deeply invites understanding, and with that understanding, I feel a responsibility to educate others.

If someone was to question you about the Church’s seriousness about abuse, saying that it’s just all PR, how would you respond? 

I can only say, that is not my experience at all. Both at the Archdiocese, and nationally, I am blessed to work with a team of dedicated professionals who above all are deeply committed to genuine healing, pastoral care, and ongoing prevention and protection efforts. I see this commitment manifest in our outreach efforts, our response to and support of individual victim-survivors, our communications about the abuses perpetrated in the Archdiocese specifically and the church overall, our education/formation work with clergy, and more.

What is something that you wish people knew about your job?

At the risk of being redundant, I think it is clear by now that I believe true and lasting change happens in the context of relationship – that it is in the specific exchanges in relationships that platitudes are challenged and reckoning can serve as the foundation for mutual understanding and respect. As a VAC, I have the opportunity to create a relationship with a victim-survivor — to “be church” to someone whose experience of church has been deeply wounded – perhaps offering a moment of respite, compassion and hope where there has been hurt, estrangement, and hopelessness. Thus, while there are important reports to be documented, and civil authorities to be notified – healing services to be coordinated and important logistics to be handled – at its core, being a VAC is about being in a relationship. For me, that relationship is rooted in the spirit of Christ’s example to us of radical accompaniment.