Victim Assistance Coordinator Interview: Mary Beth Hanus, Omaha

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

I am the youngest of 3 and grew up in Omaha. There was a big age difference between my siblings and me, which resulted in my being very spoiled!

My family instilled in me a love for our Catholic faith. My parents’ deep faith was evident to me at an early age by their prayer life and care for others. My parents loved children and the priesthood. It was modeled by an open-door policy for those who needed help and their Saturday night card games with priest friends.

At age 5, I had a conflict with a priest during one of these card game nights, which proved to be providential. As the story goes… after being put to bed, I quietly snuck out and sat on the steps to listen to the fun the adults were having playing cards. One particular priest, who was known for his theatrics, saw me and shouted loudly “Young lady, get back to bed.” I stood up with my hand on my hip and said, “I don’t have to listen to you; you are not my dad.” The room became silent, then they all burst out in laughter. I wasn’t afraid to speak my mind to clergy then or now!

I am single but had been blessed to help my brother-in law raise his children. My sister died in 1993, leaving a husband and three children: two daughters, ages 12 and 10 and a 6- year- old son.  I moved in at age 35 to help and stayed for 12 years. God bless my brother in law, who for the sake of his children, welcomed his social work sister- in -law to help! The kids called me not mom or aunt but “Bubba.” Although difficult, these 12 years prepared me for this ministry. I had to be present to unimaginable pain that I couldn’t take away. My sister’s children taught me about courage, resilience and the value of journeying with them as they strive to heal. The kids are now adults, and the girls are married and have children. Thankfully, their kids call me “Nanny” not “Grand Bubba”! They are my joy, my heart, my everything!

I received my undergraduate degree from Creighton University and my master’s degree in social work from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Right after graduation, I led support groups for court-ordered families who experienced incest. These groups included offenders, non-offending spouses/partners and children who were abused. It laid a great foundation for my future work at Children’s Hospital and the Victim Assistance ministry. I was a clinical social worker at Omaha’s Children’s Hospital for 15 years. During those years I gained expertise in child abuse and neglect, with a specialization in sexual abuse. I was trained as a child forensic interviewer and Children’s Hospital allowed me to provide interviews at our local child protection center.

Interestingly, the last 2 years at Children’s, my heart was stirred as I prayed to combine my faith and love of children in my work. Beware of what you pray for!

How long have you been a Victim Assistance Coordinator? What drew you to this work?

I have been in this position for 17 years. I am the Victim Outreach and Prevention Director which includes all the safe environment mandates and efforts. Being responsible for both areas can be challenging but also a blessing. I am motivated for our safe environment efforts to be the best precisely because of horrific abuse of past victims/survivors. Developing a comprehensive system to protect our children and youth is a way to honor those who courageously come forward.

I can see how God was preparing me all of my life– It was God’s call and persistence that eventually got me to say “yes.” In 2003, I saw the request for Review Board members in our Catholic paper. I was interested because of my faith and my professional background. I felt a strong prompting of the Holy Spirit to apply. So, I sent in my application but never heard back. Later, I read an article about who was on the Review Board and thought they had picked competent professionals. I thought I must have misread the Holy Spirit’s prompting!

Several months later the medical director of Children’s, who was on the Review Board, started recruiting me for the VAC position. The Archdiocese had saved my Review Board resume for this position. I resisted the medical director and others whom God sent to encourage me to apply. My resistance was pure fear of the unknown. I did not want to leave a job I loved and was competent in for a position that was newly created. No one could tell me how long this position would last or the specifics of what it entailed. But God was relentless in sending His messengers to encourage me to apply. I finally gave in.

At the time, I was a member of the “Marian Movement for Priest” Rosary Cenacle Group led by an older holy Jesuit. I told the group that I was applying for the position and asked for prayers. Father stated, “We need to pray over her after Cenacle.” Father and two dear friends prayed over me- it was like music to my soul.

I had a huge conversion, one that I did not know I needed. The fruits of this conversion have stayed with me even now, 17 years later. Let me be clear, I did not have this experience because I am special, it was quite the opposite. God know how weak and wounded I was and had mercy on me. He fortified me with His Spirit so I could serve Him in this ministry.

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

Yes, a lot has changed. I think all the Church’s safe environment efforts have helped those in the pews realize the pain endured by survivors of clergy abuse should never happen again. The public list of offenders has also helped others realize the magnitude of these offenses. The horrific McCarrick scandal brought light to the abuse of minors, but also of young adults. Many dioceses, like ourselves, now have a Ministerial Conduct Board for clergy misconduct with adults. Ours has the same composition and mission as the Review Board. I have had an increase of these cases and foresee more in the future.

Also, I think many VAC’s, like myself, work with survivors who were abused by nuns, teachers, coaches, volunteers etc. within the Church. These are individuals that never get counted in the USCCB audits but are equally worthy of the Church’s sincere apology, mercy and support. Not counting these on the audit is a missed opportunity to report all the efforts of the Church.

What personal quality do you think helps you to be a good Victim Assistance Coordinator?

This is hard, because I believe my best quality is when I say “yes” to cooperating with the Holy Spirit.  Because of my conversion, I know Jesus is with me, especially when working with those who have been injured. Many times, He lends me His merciful heart to share with survivors. I am not afraid to enter into their pain and walk the journey to heal, if they so choose. All good outcomes in this ministry I credit to Him.  He has deepened my passion to help survivors heal and keep kids safe, which is always paramount in my work.

I have inherited my parents’ love and respect of the priesthood. This is an unusual quality to attribute to being a good VAC but I believe it is essential. There are many more holy good priests than not. I respect and appreciate their help in this difficult ministry. The survivors who first disclosed to a parish priest, then are referred to me, heal twice as fast. I believe it is because the survivor encountered a priest who lives his ministry as God intended. I have had only a handful of cases in the 17 years where credibility was questioned. Nonetheless, I do believe that in every case we need to seek the truth. All cases are grave, whether true or not true. It is so important to follow our process no matter who the priest or survivor is. This sounds like a given, but it is so crucial in uncovering the truth and providing appropriate support and justice.

Lastly, I am a “think out of the box” person. This allows for creative ways to assist those who are hurting. My staff say, “Oh no, she is birthing another baby,” when I get an inspiration on how to provide better support and services.

Where do you find support for victim assistance, both in and out of the office?

I could not do this difficult but holy ministry without the genuine support of my supervisor, two teams and most importantly, my archbishop (Archbishop Lucas). The chancellor is my supervisor. His availability and support are beyond reproach. Our meetings are a safe place to share the real me and get support. The response team includes the chancellor, vicar for clergy and me. Archbishop and our diocesan attorney also work with the team when needed. We are a cohesive team not afraid to challenge each other and appreciate each other’s gifts. Archbishop Lucas has a heart for survivors and is always willing to go the extra step to help with their healing, including written notes and offering Mass for survivor and their families.

My awesome staff’s support carries me many days. They share the passion of our office and work diligently to provide the best for all who we encounter in our ministries.

What is something that you think people don’t know about the Church’s efforts in this area?

So much good work goes on that cannot be shared due to confidentially. On the outside, it can appear that either nothing has happened or that we made decisions without good cause. I remember one year when two active priests were removed from ministry. Because they were beloved by many, there was backlash from the community. My only response was that I understood the desire to want to defend them, but do they really think the Archdiocese would take these actions without just cause? The Archdiocese takes no pleasure in this necessary action but cannot share additional information due to confidentiality.

There is a lot of outreach to families and parish communities that many times goes unseen by the public. I had one sister of a survivor say, “This type of betrayal and abuse will effect generations of faith”. Her insight struck my heart in a profound way. What we do today will have a huge impact on the faith of families and parish communities in the future.

So many times, people don’t realize that most cases did not occur in recent years.  This is not to downplay the past abuses, but the lack of current cases is in part due to the robust safe environment efforts in dioceses.We report all abuse to the authorities even if the abuser is deceased. It is a way to acknowledge to the survivor, that the abuse they endured was a crime and should have been reported.