Victim Assistance Coordinator Interview: Walter Lukaszek, Diocese of Brownsville

Interview with Walter Lukaszek, the Victim Assistance Coordinator for the Diocese of Brownsville in Texas

Please tell us a little bit about yourself. Do you have a family? Where did you go to school? How did you end up living where you are now?

I worked for Child Protective Services for 27 years prior to applying for the Director of Catholic Charities in 2001.  The bishop asked me to add the Victim Assistance role to my job description, as I had a Master’s degree in Social Work.  I retired from the Director’s role after two years when the Diocese opted to privatize the Catholic Social Services.  Fund raising was not my forte.  But I did take the VAC/SEC roles with me for a small stipend until I reached the age of 65.  Then I continued those roles as a volunteer for the next decade. It helps being a volunteer when speaking to victims, as one of their first questions was who pays my salary.

I am married.  We will celebrate our 50th anniversary next May.  We have one son.

I attended the seminary from 1959 until 1971. After a very positive one-year experience as a deacon I opted to marry rather than serve as a celibate. During the last 5 years before ordination to the Diaconate I worked during the summer months with Mexican-American migrants in Michigan or at a parish in Mexico. While working for Child Protective Services I was able to obtain a Master’s Degree in Social Work.

I live in south Donna, Texas, just 7 miles from the US/Mexico border. My wife to be had spent one winter in Michigan and was clear with me that she would not spend another. So my car and I voted to head south from the home state of my younger years. It was interesting living, working, and adapting in an area where I was a minority. There is a Homeland security tent city for immigrants not far from where we live—cages and all.

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

I began my role as a VAC in June of 2002. The bishop returned from Dallas and the next day I was serving two victims of a very much respected cleric.  They were only two of his many victims. My seminary education, years serving with Child Protective Services, and the Master’s degree in social work have been very helpful listening to and pastorally supporting individuals who report clergy sexual abuse.

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

I am also the Safe Environment coordinator. The structure we have is parish-based facilitators for sharing the VIRTUS’ “Protecting God’s children” for all who minister with children, youth, and vulnerable adults and “Empowering God’s children” for children and youth (with the basic message: if anyone touches you in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable, tell your mom or dad or some other trusted adult).  I introduce myself at parish self-assessments as the “paper gatherer” for the annual USCCB audit and CARA report. I also assist the Review Board, the diocesan attorney (when victims prefer litigation or mediation), and our bishop when there are adult allegations (sexual or boundary violations) against clerics.

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

I have been blessed with bishops and vicar generals who listened to and responded to people making reports.  The Review Board is involved in these reports and in all matters noted in response 3. The Institutional church is slowly facing part of its sinful past since 2002. But the process of letting details of the extent of sexual abuse come out one diocese at a time or one country at a time keeps the focus on the institution’s protecting itself rather than facing the past sins and trauma they caused and then seeking forgiveness and offering healing. When our Diocese published the names of all credibly accused clerics in 2019, the result was 14 more reporters to minister to. Some opted for law suits or mediation; the majority just wanted to be heard and hear that what happened was not their fault.

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

Listening. So many of the historical cases were satisfied when someone from the church listened and believed them. Many have long since left the pews, but have a relationship with God.

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

One of the rules that kept me sane during my 27 years with Child Protective Services was “leave the problems at the door at 5pm.”  My role then and now is to allow healing at the pace of the person, the victim. My faith is supported by a daily prayer life with my wife, meditation on Scripture, and reading that allows me to focus on the big picture.

What would you want people to understand about your role?

That I am here to listen, to assist at the pace of the person in front of me (the person reporting or the very busy pastor who needs to provide paperwork to document compliance with the “Charter for the Protection of minors and youth,” or the team member that has a role to play in addressing the sin of clergy sexual abuse), and to recognize that life is not perfect.