By BRADLEY ZINT     4/25/2023

In honor of National Child Abuse Prevention Month, OC Catholic talks to Diane Gomez-Valenzuela, who served as the Diocese of Orange’s first assistance ministry coordinator.

It was the type of duty that would shake most anyone to their core — even for an experienced professional like Diane Gomez-Valenzuela.

In 2002, the licensed clinical social worker was recruited by the Diocese of Orange to become its first assistance ministry coordinator. The position was created in a time of crisis for the entire Catholic Church as the extent of clergy abuse against minors became widely known. Consequently, dioceses needed people who could handle the influx of reported abuse cases.

But as a completely new job, no one had an exact idea of how to get it done, much less how to get it done well. It would involve hearing calls for help, tales of agony. Lots of them.

Sometimes reports came straight from the victims themselves. Sometimes they came from families or concerned people who suspected wrongdoing.

For a few, in talking with the church and reliving a painful past, the act unleashed new trauma.

“It was difficult in that calls were coming in at all days and times,” Gomez-Valenzuela said. “For some, it perhaps was the first time they had disclosed anything to anyone. It was a hot topic.” Once hearing reports, Gomez-Valenzuela’s job, done in confidentiality, was triage-like: carefully listen to the callers and document their cases; do crisis intervention; refer to licensed therapists; contact relevant agencies, such law enforcement or child protective services; and provide pastoral care.

At first, Gomez-Valenzuela, a lifelong Catholic, was reluctant to accept the assistance ministry coordinator position.

“It was very challenging at times,” she said. “Yes, I did have a network of people from other dioceses that I could speak to, but it was a very isolating position. It was not something I could discuss with others.”

The experience shook her faith.

“I prayed that God be with me, that He help me, that He direct me,” Gomez-Valenzuela said. “Thankfully, He never left my side. Honestly, God always guided me. I saw situations of hope. I really did. I just felt like it was a position I needed to do at the time.”

Luckily for the victims, their families and the entire diocesan community, Gomez-Valenzuela was the right person for the task. She has a bachelor’s in social services, with a minor criminal justice and a master’s in social welfare.

Monsignor Stephen Doktorczyk, pastor of St. Martin de Porres parish and the Diocese’s vicar general for legal and canonical affairs, credited her work.

“She was diligent in making sure complainants were heard, that proper therapy was offered when warranted, that reports were made to civil authorities and that proper follow-up was the norm,” he said. “She was — and is — a professional who cares and takes her duties most seriously.”

Gomez-Valenzuela’s career has included helping children and families in a variety of public and private settings — medical, case management and advocacy, and community work. She attributes her success as the Diocese’s first assistance ministry coordinator to the dedicated people she worked with, as well as her years of experience and training.

And her job isn’t done: She now serves on the Diocese’s Oversight and Review Board, a volunteer group of professionals, clergy and diocesan staff who address allegations of sexual misconduct against minors by clergy and other church personnel and volunteers. Norma Agüero, director of the Office Child & Youth Protection, complimented Gomez-Valenzuela for getting the important office off the ground.

“The foundational groundwork laid down by Diane and others in the early days, in response to the sexual abuse crisis, was instrumental in ensuring that our Diocese would respond and adhere to the USCCB’s National Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” Agüero said. “As our first assistance ministry coordinator, Diane became the key person through whom victim survivors of clergy sexual abuse could begin to be heard and heal.”