In honor of National Child Abuse Prevention Month, we take a closer look at the Diocese of Orange Oversight and Review Board, a committee working daily to protect youth within our Diocese.
For more than two decades, this small independent committee has been steadily working to make the Diocese of Orange a safer place to visit, learn and worship.
The Oversight and Review Board may not be known to many throughout the Diocese, but its mission is one that everyone agrees on: Children must be protected from harm.
This is what the Oversight and Review Board quietly does, year and year and month after month: the solemn, essential duty of addressing allegations of sexual misconduct against minors by clergy and other church personnel. In addition, the board also handles other matters of misconduct that are not necessarily related to sexual abuse, such as harassment.
The board was established in 2002 in the wake of a crisis affecting the entire Catholic Church. That year, the extent of abuse against minors by clergy became widely known, and Church officials began finding ways to address it.
That same year, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops drafted its landmark Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, a set of procedures aimed at addressing the tragic problem. In Orange County, under the charter’s guidelines, Bishop Tod Brown also took the step of establishing the Oversight and Review Board.
The board’s voting members are of varied professional backgrounds. Church personnel are also on the board as non-voting members. They all meet regularly to review investigations and, ultimately, provide recommendations to Bishop Kevin Vann.
Fr. Angelos Sebastian, the Diocese’s vicar general and moderator of the curia, is a priest serving on the board.
“With the reforms and procedures our Diocese has put in place since 2002, we can say our Church is a safer place than it was in the decades before,” Fr. Angelos said. “Consequently, it is also a holier place.”
Ron Lowenberg served on the Oversight and Review Board for nearly 20 years. The law enforcement veteran of 36 years — who career included chief of police for Cypress and Huntington Beach — is the Diocese’s manager of internal investigations and review.
He was asked to take on the part-time role at the request of Bishop Vann, who appreciated his expertise.
“You really can’t say no to the bishop!” Lowenberg said with a laugh. “But I see this as more of a calling than a job.”
Lowenberg is one of the first people to hear about potential abuse cases, such as those that come from the Diocese’s reporting hotline. Before going to the Oversight and Review Board, cases are likely to be initially reviewed by him or another contract investigator with law enforcement experience.
“I triage the cases when they come in,” Lowenberg said. “My role is to really manage those cases that have potential merit, bring them to the board and make sure we meet all our legal and policy requirements. We search for the truth and bring justice to the Church, the system and the victims of these matters.”
James Burns chairs the Oversight and Review Board. The retired FBI agent, who also worked for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles as a canonical investigator, has been on the board since 2010.
“I feel that we are able to provide a good, professional group of people to help the bishop with these hard decisions,” Burns said. “We’re able to really vet the issue completely through our investigators and our own review and recommendations. Then Bishop Vann comes up with a collaborative solution.”
Burns added, “Bishop Vann considers the board very important. I know that this issue of child abuse is highest on his list of important things.”
Diane Gomez-Valenzuela is a licensed clinical social worker who has aided children and families in a variety of public and private settings, including for the Diocese. She has served on the Oversight and Review Board for more than decade.
For Gomez-Valenzuela, it’s as if “God called me to this role. It was not something I sought out. The Lord has guided me and always been by my side as I’ve done this difficult work.”
She sees her role as speaking up for those who may not be able to speak for themselves.
“Everyone’s perspective is heard, and it’s all for the goal of keeping people safe,” Gomez-Valenzuela added. “When there’s hurt and when there has been abuse, we address it. We don’t try to dismiss it. The work is not only valuable, but it’s necessary.”
MISSION OF THE OVERSIGHT AND REVIEW BOARD
The mission of the Oversight and Review Board is to ensure appropriate responses and reporting procedures, such as:
■ Act in a way that protects people from being harmed, including relieving an accused priest or deacon from ministerial duties when warranted by substantiated facts and/or risk of harm
■ Comply with all applicable civil reporting mandates governing sexual abuse
■ Offer victims and their families assistance in obtaining psychological counseling and spiritual direction
■ Deal as openly as possible with members of the parish community while respecting the privacy of the individuals involved and in accordance with Church law governing such situations.