Victim Assistance Coordinator Interview: Jenny Michaelson

 Jenny Michaelson
Victim Assistance Corrdinator in the Archdiocese of Anchorage – Juneau

  1. Please tell us a little bit about yourself. Do you have a family? What did you study? How did you become a VAC?

Even though I am an Alaskan, one of the first things people learn about me after meeting is that I was born in New Orleans, Louisiana and raised in a suburb of the city. I have lived in Alaska for over 32 years, but the influence of the family, faith and community in which I was formed remains significant to who I am. I came to Alaska as a Covenant House Faith Community Volunteer in 1988 to assist in opening Covenant House Alaska, which is a crisis shelter for homeless teens. I moved to Alaska after serving as a community member in New York for one year and when learning of the opportunity to come to Alaska, I immediately expressed interest. I have a deep appreciation for the excitement that energizing cities provide and the splendor of God’s creation found in all areas of our country, especially Alaska.

Most people when moving to Alaska, do so with a commitment for a year and many end up staying; as did I. I met my husband in Anchorage and we have been married for 30 years. We raised three children (all now adults) in Palmer, a community north of Anchorage. I enjoy cooking, gardening, hiking, and visiting with family and friends.

I completed an undergraduate degree in social work from a university in a small town in Louisiana. Before serving the Church, I worked as a social worker with homeless teens, victims of sexual assault and in home health and hospice settings between Louisiana, New York and Alaska. Soon after settling in Alaska, I completed a master’s program in Pastoral Studies through an extension program of Loyola University New Orleans and have worked in both parish and diocesan ministries for over 23 years. Besides working with youth and adults in the areas of faith formation and sacramental preparation in a parish I have also worked at the Archdiocesan Chancery Office as an auditor for the Marriage Tribunal.  It was from there that I was asked by the Archbishop to serve as the Director for the Office of Safe Environment which I have been doing for the past ten years.

As the Director I followed  two very dedicated Religious Sisters who formally established this ministry in 2002. They set a foundation for accompanying victims/survivors who were impacted by abuse from a minister of the church. They also began the establishment of needed policies and procedures to ensure the Archdiocese’s commitment to the vision of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which we continue to build on and update. The Archdiocese has two positions, a Safe Environment Director and a Victim Assistance Coordinator. As the Director I also shared in the role of the Victim Assistance Coordinator. Then in 2019, I was asked by our Apostolic Administrator, to serve as both the Director and the Victim Assistance Coordinator. This was during a significant time because we had finalized the work of an independent commission reviewing all files and published a list of credibly accused ministers who had represented the Archdiocese of Anchorage.

  1. Do you have other roles at the diocese? What are they? 

As I mentioned, I am serving both as the Director for the Office of Safe Environment and the Victim Assistance Coordinator. The Director position is responsible for the implementation and compliance of Archdiocesan Safe Environment policies and procedures. I also serve as the auditor for the tribunal. This role assists those petitioning for a declaration of nullity in telling their story. It has been my experience that this process also has the potential to promote healing and find support from the church community.

On May 19, 2020, Pope Francis merged the Archdiocese of Anchorage and the Diocese of Juneau and has erected the new Archdiocese of Anchorage-Juneau. At the same time, he named the current Bishop of Juneau and Apostolic Administrator for Anchorage, Andrew E. Bellisario, C.M. as the new Archbishop of Anchorage-Juneau. This is a very exciting and historic time for the people of Southeast and Southcentral Alaska. The inauguration of our new Archdiocese and installation of our new Archbishop will be held in September of this year and I look forward to serving in these roles and continuing to work with the extraordinary person who currently holds the Victim Assistance Coordinator position for the Diocese of Juneau.

  1. What is one of your personal qualities that you think makes you suited to this work? 

Empathy and listening with a sincere heart are qualities that I continue to build on in responding to those impacted by abuse.

  1. What is a quality that you are still working to grow in, related to this work?

Identifying the personal impact that abuse has had on each person to ensure an environment that promotes trust is an area in which I continue to grow.

  1. Walk us through a day in which you get a call from an abuse survivor. What do you do? 

When someone calls the Victim Assistance or the Office of Safe Environment’s phone , my focus on everything else is put to the side. The first thing I do is listen. Hearing their story, their experience, the impact the abuse has had, their feelings and needs are most important. I thank them for contacting me and sharing their story because I recognize how difficult and scary it must be to make that call.

In the course of our conversation, we discuss my role as a support and someone who will accompany them moving forward for as long as they need.  I explain each step as it applies to a person’s unique circumstance and what to expect as the process unfolds.  It is imperative to do what can be done to establish an environment of trust and transparency.

We discuss ways that the church can assist them including advocacy and ongoing support services, such as referring to professional counseling. I ask in what other ways the Archdiocese can assist them, as well as answering any questions they may have.

  1. How do you take care of your own mental health while doing this work?

One of the most meaningful moments for me was when a survivor told me they were handing over to me (meaning the church) the suffering and shame they had been carrying with them their entire life. They realized that it was not their burden to carry. When victim, survivors or family members share with me their pain, anger and shame, I cope best through prayer. I look to God to carry and relieve the pain and stress. I also find Peace in the outdoors and in the support of my fellow ministers.

The most difficult part of this work is when my best efforts or the efforts of the church do not seem to be enough to promote the beginning of a healing process. It is during these times, that I put my faith in the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of individuals, our church and our world.

  1. What would you want people to understand about your role?

I hope people will understand that the role of the Victim Assistance Coordinator is one of the Church’s efforts to help and support everyone who has been abused. I want people to know that this role exists with the hope that victims, survivors and their family members will come forward to tell their story and find a way towards healing.