Victim Assistance Coordinator Interview: Sylvia Palda, Orange

This month’s interview is with Sylvia Palda of the Diocese of Orange in California.

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

My name is Sylvia Palda and I am happy to share my journey to becoming the Victim’s Assistance Coordinator for the Diocese of Orange, California.  As the youngest of six children in a first generation Catholic Mexican-American family, most of my youth was spent observing how to get things done well the first time with the least amount of suffering…when that was possible!  I grew up speaking Spanish to my parents and English to my siblings.  I never knew I was different from anyone at the schools I attended until I would recite the names of my siblings, “Gerardo, Lilia, Jesus, Fernando, Jose…” and see the expressions on other kid’s faces.  The values in my household were always around God, family, and education.  My parents were models of hard work and sacrifice.   As many immigrants do, they moved away from their beloved families to provide our family and their family of origin with greater opportunities. I was inspired as my older siblings dedicated themselves to higher learning and ambitious careers. At several points I felt quite a bit of pressure knowing I had a sister at Stanford pursuing her medical degree and a brother as a Diocesan priest in Los Angeles.  I began to ask how I too could be a good steward.

Growing up in Culver City, California, my parents were protective of me and my sister and permissive with my brothers.  This double standard taught me to be cautious and, at the same time, motivated me to not live in fear of what might happen or to accept the authority of others without question. I came to the realization that it was far better to truly live than to simply be alive. My willingness to challenge the status quo has served me tremendously.  After high school, I embraced the opportunity to live on my own and spent a rewarding 4 years at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) for my undergraduate degree. I was blessed there with a second family of wonderful friends and the love of my life, James. James and I have been together for 23 years and married for almost 17 years, with 3 rock star children ages 13, 11, and 8.

Shortly after I graduated from UCLA, I enrolled in back-to-back graduate programs. This has been my pattern: As soon as I finish a degree or certification, I’m ready for the next training. I earned a M.A. in Education and M.S. in Counseling Psychology and continue to explore trainings and certifications to build my capacity to serve others.

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

This is a story of the clearest “calling” I have ever received.  Over 15 years ago, as an intern pursuing my licensure as a psychotherapist, I met a very sweet and loving colleague, who supported me in countless ways.  Sadly, while I was still there, she died of a heart attack.  I am confident that this woman who often blessed me, had also blessed every life she encountered.

Several years later, while I was driving home, I received news that another colleague from this clinic had died. As I neared my house and contemplated this recent death, my thoughts went to that other colleague who had died too soon. My dear friend appeared in my mind in the image of an angel.

Once home, I checked my work email and I was struck by an odd sight, an email from the Chancellor of the Diocese of Orange. She explained that she had been given my name by someone else. The name of the referring individual looked slightly familiar, but I could not place them. So, I went on a short hunt to find out who this person was who was throwing my name in the hat for a position I knew nothing about!  What I found next gave me goosebumps. I discovered an email that was over five years old, where my dear friend, who I was just reminiscing about, had arranged a one-time meet and greet between the three of us. I had no idea what the position was, but I was most certain that I was going to pay attention to this call.

At the time, I was not looking for work. I had built a private practice and was also working for a grant project serving low-income families with psycho-educational workshops. Even if I needed the work, I don’t believe I would have ever applied to this job if I had seen it posted somewhere! As I began to understand what the position required, I became worried that if I said yes, my faith would be challenged.  But, for the first time in my life, I knew I was being called to do this work. And I listened. And I said yes. I’ll never forget being called into a conference room to meet members of the Diocesan Oversight Review Board on the first day in my post. I was told that my story above was not about coincidences, but that it was a God-incidence. I believe that to be the truth. As a result, my faith has grown.

I was not without life and work experience that would be pivotal in preparing me for the job, however. My family and I had dealt with the very difficult transition of accepting my brother’s decision to leave the priesthood. My brother taught me that priests are human. And professionally, my hours as an intern were enveloped with cases of child abuse and neglect. I helped children of abuse and their families find their voices, connect with resources, and begin to heal.

I have been the VAC for the Diocese of Orange since 2016. I feel blessed, challenged, and motivated.

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

Absolutely, and these changes are still happening. I believe sustaining this shift in perspective is one of the integral contributions for any VAC. The stories from abuse survivors can be heart-wrenching, nauseating, demoralizing and painful. And in response, it almost makes sense that, historically, some would choose to deny, minimize, over-generalize and want to hide the truth. By now, thankfully, the Church strives to never again cover-up and repeat the errors of the past.  But I believe it is in the subtle details that the devil truly resides. And it is in these details where the VAC needs to be vigilant. Maintaining and sustaining the progress can be difficult when protocols seem tedious. The VAC needs to ensure protocols are followed diligently.

I am uplifted that our diocese, with the leadership of Bishop Kevin Vann, his Vicar General, Msgr. Stephen Doktorczyk, the Vicar for Clergy, Rev. Daniel Reader, and countless capable staff, have expanded the cases that are reviewed and presented to the Oversight Review Board. These now include all cases of sexual misconduct within the diocese, not just abuse by clergy. Survivors of abuse by lay men and women (Church volunteers, teachers or coaches, etc.)  also need to be heard and supported to heal from this abuse.  We are working to prevent exploitation at all levels.

When we maintain established protocols and participate in the shifting of attitudes toward abuse survivors, we can allow for each survivor to tell their unique story and find healing. The grace that is born with lessons learned comes in knowing that healing begins with being present and joining the abuse survivor wherever they are at, without having an agenda. The light that shines is in believing that suffering can end, and healing is possible. The truth that is revealed is that it takes courage to come forward and courage to begin the healing journey. The key is knowing that we are all brothers and sisters, equally worthy of the same love and respect.

What personal quality do you think is indispensable for a VAC?

I am often the first person to hear a survivor’s story of abuse. I cannot show up assuming I know what they are about to say. I need to set everything aside and be truly present for them. I believe the Holy Spirit is guiding both of us in that moment towards peace and healing. All at once, the qualities of openness, equality, compassion, and listening to understand are vital.

How do you take care of your own faith life and mental health while doing this work?

Thankfully I have been blessed with monumentally generous mentors and colleagues. I’ve learned to never hesitate to ask for help.  In fact, it seems to me that I am rewarded ten-fold when I acknowledge that I need an extra hand.  I am humbled and overwhelmed by the amount of time, energy and wisdom that is shared with me.

Burnout and compassion fatigue are real, and so a commitment to self-care is crucial. During the pandemic, especially, having access to online mass with my family became a beautiful new ritual for all of us.  Coming together on each Sunday night to light a candle enabled us to still feel united with people around the world as we all tuned into the same Eucharistic celebration. Instead of feeling isolated, we experienced even greater connection.

…And…the joy of being physically active has always been important to my own mental health…Beach volleyball, running outdoors and Pilates have been key ingredients to my own self-care.

What would you want people to understand about your role?

Wonderful question! Ideally, I want everyone, especially abuse survivors to know, with certainty that:

I am here to help. As an independently licensed clinician, not an employee of the diocese, my role is to listen to and accept the abuse survivor and their experience. It is NOT my role to investigate or question their story. I will honor and respect their courage in coming forward, offering my support at their own pace. I strive to help them identify their needs and can connect them with resources and referrals.