Archdiocese Local

An evolving ministry: Board members learn from survivors

Benedictine Sister Suzanne Fitzmaurice, left, of the independent review board, meets with Declan Lowney, investigator/auditor, and Jenifer Valenti, director of the archdiocesan office for protection and care. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

by Moira Cullings

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — For the first time, the archdiocesan office for protection and care (OPC) is making public the names of the members of its independent review board (IRB).

It’s an effort to instill transparency and trust in the process of investigating and reviewing allegations of sexual abuse by clergy or other representatives of the Catholic Church.

“Our team believes that it’s really important to work to instill trust in this area where trust may have been broken or lost,” said Jenifer Valenti, director of the OPC.

“And one way to do that is to help people understand what the process is and the people that are looking at the information and advising the archbishop,” she added.

In 2002, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) established the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” which requires each diocese to have an independent review board.

“What the board does is provide advice and consultation on all aspects of sexual abuse in the church, particularly involving clergy,” said Valenti.

When the OPC receives an allegation of abuse, the office ensures that law enforcement is notified, as is required by law, and begins its own investigation.

The case is then presented to the IRB, which reviews and discusses it. The members ultimately present to the archbishop the outcome of the investigation and recommend further action.

Expert advice

The IRB is made up of Catholic men and women from a variety of backgrounds and expertise.

“These are all people who care deeply about this topic in the church and care deeply about the church,” said Valenti.

From left (beginning at the top row): Bob Plant, retired FBI agent; Nancy Hoey, counselor specializing in trauma; Kelly Ryan, Johnson County district court judge; Sister Susanne Fitzmaurice, former educator with at-risk youth; Kathy O’Hara, former superintendent of Catholic schools; and Father Scott Wallisch, archdiocesan director of seminarians and pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Shawnee, are members of the archdiocesan independent review board (IRB).

They typically meet once a month to review cases presented by the OPC’s investigator/auditor, Declan Lowney, who has been with the office since April.

In cases where the subject of an allegation is deceased, IRB chair Bob Plant said the group looks for ways to help the survivors.

“We get them the help and say, ‘We believe this. This is what happened.’ And we want them to get the help that they need,” he said.

Plant, a parishioner of St. John Paul II Parish in Olathe, has been a board member for four years.

He served in the military before working for the FBI, where he dealt primarily with domestic terrorism, drug and gang cases. Now retired, Plant is a member of the Knights of Columbus and has appreciated the opportunity to help the archdiocese.

Kelly Ryan, deputy chair, has been on the board for one year. He is also grateful to use his expertise for the good of the church.

After graduating from law school at Washburn University in Topeka, Ryan worked as a prosecutor for three years before going into private practice for some 20 years.

In 2008, he was appointed as a district court judge in Johnson County, where he’s worked in family law court and criminal court.

“With a Catholic twist to it, [being on the IRB is] similar to a lot of the things that I see and encounter in my work,” said Ryan.

“And much like Bob,” he added, “I’ve always been involved in the church ­—whether it’s lectoring, [serving as a] eucharistic minister, on the finance council, pastoral council, all of those things over the years.”

Ryan said the harm that is done to survivors has a “ripple effect” on the wider church and community.

“As a lifelong Catholic, I am very familiar with the problems that have existed in the church,” he said, “and the corrective ways of trying to address that now and going into the future.

“This is a way to be involved in that and help the archdiocese, help the people that are involved in all this by using the expertise that I have from a legal side.”

Plant agreed.

“Knowing that the victims are getting the care that they need from the church — that’s the most important thing when we go through this,” he said.

A step forward

Valenti wants Catholics to know that the archdiocese’s efforts to prevent abuse and walk with those who have been harmed are constantly evolving.

IRB members are current on best practices and trauma informed. They also learn from the survivors they work with.

“And, so, we have changed a lot of the processes, just in keeping in step with the world’s understanding of sexual abuse and how that is constantly evolving,” said Valenti.

The OPC uses restorative principles to treat survivors with care, dignity and respect.

“It is a very courageous and difficult thing to disclose abuse,” said Valenti, and even more complicated when victims have been harmed by a representative of the church.

“And oftentimes, they have felt rejection or that they weren’t believed.”

Valenti said the progress that’s been made wouldn’t be possible without the support of the archbishop and church leadership.

She hopes naming the IRB members and their area of expertise will be another positive step forward.

“By being transparent about people that are involved in this process,” she said, “we hope to instill trust in it.”

For more information on the IRB, visit the website at:

About the author

Moira Cullings

Moira attended St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Overland Park and Benedictine College in Atchison. She majored in marketing, minored in psychology and played center midfield for the women’s soccer team. Moira joined The Leaven staff as a feature writer and social media editor in 2015. After a move to Denver, Moira resumed her full-time position at The Leaven and continues to write and manage its website, social media channels. Her favorite assignment was traveling to the Holy Land to take photos for a group pilgrimage in 2019.

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