VAC Interview: Julie Sparacio

This is an interview with Julie Sparacio, who is the Director for Child and Youth Protection and also the Victim Assistance Coordinator for the Diocese of Santa Rosa, CA.

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

I grew up in a large Catholic family, with 4 older sisters, 1 older brother and 1 younger brother. Our family was somewhat divided – the ‘big kids’ and the ‘little kids’ with a 5-year gap between the older 3 and the younger 4. The big kids went to Catholic School and the little kids all went to public school. As often happens in large families, the experience of the big kids was very different from the littles. When we get together, you would think we weren’t even talking about the same family sometimes!  One of the biggest differences though was what they learned about being a Catholic. They had a very different understanding of the workings of the Church, the proper protocols, knowledge of different saints, etc. Once a week Religious Education can’t begin to cover all of the things there are to know about the Catholic Church.  That lack of knowledge has caused some embarrassing moments in my years at the Chancery. Mostly I just shrug and laugh, but sometimes……

I grew up in the city of Orange in Orange County, CA. I was blessed to go to school with some of the same kids from Kindergarten through 12th grade, people I still connect with today! Our town wasn’t that small – 4 high schools – but it felt small. We rode our bikes everywhere, played outside until the streetlights came on, had a block party for the 4th of July, and took swimming lessons in the big public pool. You get the idea- a much simpler time, a simpler world than what we see today.

I graduated from Villa Park High School and then CSU Fullerton with a BS in Communicative Disorders. After a few years I went back for a MA in Counseling. My degree allowed me to work as a therapist or a school counselor, but I knew I wanted summer vacation, so I chose schools.  I worked for several years as a high school counselor and then more years as an elementary counselor. I speak some Spanish (much less these days than I use to) so I often got assigned to the schools with a high Latino population. The schools often had a large number of children in poverty situations, i.e., single parents, or parents with drug and alcohol issues, in addition to those that were new to the country. It followed that there were a number of students with issues, and I found myself getting a lot of experience with abuse reports.

I married and had four children – two girls and two boys. My husband and I both said we married each other because we made us laugh. Adding four crazy, funny, smart kids to that mix made for some very silly dinner times! That humor though, got us through some very dark times. When my husband was first diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, his hands were starting to curl inward and freeze in that position. This was before we knew what was happening and believe me, I was terrified. It was close to Christmas, and I remember telling his sister that now we just call him “Santa Claws.” He laughed, I laughed, and she was horrified! Years later, as it got closer to the end, his doctor was telling us that it was close. I looked at him and said, “I understand how important this is for you to tell us, Doctor, but this is killing me.” Without missing a beat my husband said, “Me too.” I laughed and laughed, mostly at the horrified look on the doctor’s face!! After he died, I did the smartest thing. I didn’t know it was smart, didn’t know how much it would help, just did it. I was going to be turning 60 on my next birthday, so I decided I would find 60 JOY moments before my birthday. I spent that year, looking for experiences that brought me joy and then sharing them on Facebook with my friends. God was so good to me that year – several people I hadn’t seen for years happened to come up for a visit, and I had the opportunity to go places I had never been. It was a year filled with grief, AND joy. I now have two grandsons who bring me that joy. I loved the years when my kids were young and every thing they said was so funny as they learned to navigate the world. Getting the chance to experience that again with the grands is such a gift.

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

When my husband and I moved to Northern California, I got a job working as a high school counselor. With four kids, money was always tight, and I thought this job [as a VAC] (it was advertised as a 10 hour a week job) would be a great way to finally give ourselves a cushion. I figured I would do it for a year… The contact person was a nun, so I looked at it, considered it and chickened out to call a nun! I found that bulletin and lost it, two more times. The third time, I noticed an email address, and figured – three times – God was really trying to get my attention. I went through two interviews and each time on the way there I thought, “Why am I doing this? I don’t want this job!” On the way home then, I prayed, “Oh God, I really want this job!” The bishop’s secretary called and said he wanted to meet with me! I was so nervous! His sweet secretary reassured me, told me what to call him (he preferred Bishop) told me I didn’t have to kiss his ring, etc. I honestly didn’t know what the proper protocol was and everyone I asked had a different answer! The very first meeting I attended was with our Review Board. Every person in the room was a product of Catholic Schools and a priest/canon lawyer was there explaining about the Essential Norms. I was so confused and convinced I was not the right person for the job! I didn’t know what Canon law was, let alone Essential Norms. My favorite Monsignor was sitting across from me and could see the confusion, and to be honest – panic, on my face and mouthed, “Don’t worry, I’ll explain later.” Poor man, I can’t tell you how many times I went running to him for an explanation! I also used to talk openly about the stories I would hear. There were days his face would get so red! One time when we were talking, I blushed. He was so delighted to have the tables turned and loves to tease me about that today!

One of the early conferences I attended, we were going around the room and people were sharing how they got into this work.  Everyone had been working elsewhere in the chancery and the bishop just gave them this job. It is not easy work so people weren’t really complaining but feeling overwhelmed. I think you had to have lived through the Boston scandal, to have dealt with the press camped outside the chancery, to know that anything you said would likely be misrepresented in the media, and to be struggling with your own shock and sense of betrayal (like all of us) while being present for those that were so wounded, to truly understand what was asked of those brilliant, compassionate people. I stood up and told them that I was embarrassed to admit it but, “I actually applied for this job!” Everyone laughed – because it was crazy to think that someone would ask to walk willingly into this fire.

There have been a number of times when I wanted to leave this work – it can be frustrating, gut wrenching – and God kept saying no.  At one conference, about five years in, there was an opportunity for Taizé prayer.  I didn’t even know what that was and looked forward to the time.  As I knelt on the floor with my forehead on the cross, I heard myself tell God “for as long as you want me, for as long as you need me.”  Not kidding – I stood up and immediately chastised myself, “What did you go and do that for? Now you have to stay in this job!”  I laugh about that and know that God laughs too.  Here I am 18 years later…

How have things changed, or what have you seen shift during your 18 years working as a VAC?

So many things have changed since those early days. One – we aren’t all in shock anymore. That’s not really a good thing – that people aren’t surprised anymore about this. We should always be shocked that there are people out there who harm children in this way.

There was a period of time in those early years where all of the priests were lumped in with the predators.  That was such a sad time for those good, holy men who had dedicated their lives. They were struggling with their own sense of betrayal, different from those of us in the pews, these guys were their friends. At the same time, people were yelling at them, spitting on them.

On the other hand, some people refused to believe the victims that came forward. They had a hard time believing that their priest could do such a thing. In 2003, the state of California opened the statute of limitations for lawsuits, so some believed that people came forward for money. Listening to a victim/survivor and hearing their story, watching the physical struggle to even get the words out, and sitting with their emotions was difficult, but not nearly as difficult as dealing with those that said they were crazy or lying. Even today there are people who believe that one of our convicted priests could not have done anything. I think his current victim count is in the 50’s! I remind myself that I am immersed in this work and most people aren’t. Some people just can’t let their brains accept.

Today, more people are inclined to believe the victim/survivor. Time and training have shown us that you never know what someone might be doing behind closed doors. People were so resistant to being part of the solution, background checks and training, because this is only a priest problem. Training has taught people how prevalent this problem is in society, so the willingness to participate in prevention is much greater.

We have also learned a lot about the impact of abuse and what helps.  New understanding and innovations in treatment are having a great impact on the long-term effects.  That is a wonderful thing!

How do you think work as a VAC is different in a small diocese as opposed to a larger one?

I can only speak about what it was like in my diocese. When I came on board, we were about 3 years from when our bishop had resigned, amidst his own sexual and financial scandal. Our diocese was left $16 million in debt. We didn’t have the resources to offer much assistance, we didn’t have the money for programs, etc. We created training programs and made them work. We offered counseling to survivors but even that had to be carefully doled out. There was absolutely no money for any help for my office. I do the Safe Environment piece as well as Victim Assistance for the diocese and for most of these years I have done it by myself. Larger dioceses, while having a much bigger pool that they are responsible for, also have more resources to draw from. Trying to establish an office, make policies and make all the decisions by myself was hard, so thankfully there were a few people I could go to. I envied those that had help or even other ministries to connect with and utilize.

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

I think that I am real. I am not very good at prevaricating or dissembling. People have said to me that what you see is what you get with me. I think that works when I meet with victim/survivors. I am honest and real, because frankly I don’t know any other way to be. Since trust is usually such a big issue for them, understandably so, I think it works.

One year, the theme at our National Conference was Chosen.  I received a piece of granite with that word engraved as well as the verse from John 15:16 – “It was not you who chose Me, but I who chose you.” That sits on my desk to remind me that God chose me for this work, for this time. I never planned for this, never imagined I would be doing this work. I found out a few years ago that my confirmation saint – St. Maria Goretti – is the patron saint of child abuse victims. Amazing! God had a plan, and this saint has been working with Him, interceding/directing my life for a long time. I am where I am supposed to be! I don’t have the talent and brilliance of so many of my counterparts across the country. Yet, I believe that I was the right person, for this place, for this time.  So perhaps my best quality was my listening to God’s direction (even when I didn’t know I was and fought against it!!!)

Where do you find support for your work?

In those early years, we were all scrambling to figure out what to do and how to do it. A few dioceses had some wonderful programs already in place and they shared so freely. That became a standard with all VAC’s across the United States. If someone has a need, a question, all they have to do is put it out there and they will get a ton of helpful answers. The California VAC’s and SEC’s have monthly conference calls where we talk and share. There isn’t anyone who can understand what it is like to do this work, like someone who is also doing it. That support and comraderie has been a lifesaver at times.

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 think my wish would be that people understand the statistics around childhood sexual abuse, and realize that they are walking amongst us, all the time. These individuals were wounded at such a critical time in their life and the recovery is difficult, painful, hard. In every way, we as Church, need to support them, love them, pray for them. I would also wish for people to pray for the perpetrators. Honestly – I have a hard time even saying those words!!! Yet I know that they are damaged as well, and desperately need our prayers. I believe their judgement will be harsh, deservedly so, but God’s compassion will be there for most of them. Lastly, I would ask that they pray for those of us involved in this work, both the Victim Assistance work and the Safe Environment work. It is hard work. There are many, many moments of grace, many opportunities to see God work in obvious, undeniable ways – such a gift! There are many moments of frustration and angst, and pain, and sadness. It is in those moments that we need prayers, to keep us standing, to keep us going.  We can’t do this work without prayers.