By GREG HARDESTY     3/28/2023

Before she became a mother, Norma Agüero was a pre-school teacher.

And while raising three children — at the time, one was in elementary school, and the other two were high school students — Agüero began working part time as a Spanish teacher and as Confirmation coordinator at Mission Basilica in San Juan Capistrano.

Children always have been at the center of Agüero’s life.

Now a proud grandmother of two, and a parishioner at San Francisco Solano in Rancho Santa Margarita, Agüero is marking her 13th year running one of the most important but under-the-radar departments in the Diocese of Orange.

The RCBO’s Office of Child and Youth Protection (OCYP) was established to uphold the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, the landmark set of procedures originally established by the USCCB in 2002.

The comprehensive document, written in response to sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy, includes guidelines for reconciliation, healing, accountability and prevention of future acts of abuse and is a letter of apology and how the church will do things differently.

Key to the charter is making sure the Church is helping victims come forward as well as in their healing process. With April being National Child Abuse Prevention Month, Agüero talked about the importance of the department for the Diocese.

“I’m humbled by the work that I do,” said Agüero, who became director of the OCYP in 2011, which was established in 2003. She started working for the Diocese in 2007, first in the worship and Hispanic ministries office before serving as executive assistant to former Auxiliary Bishop Cirilo Flores.

“It’s been a lot of work,” Agüero said, “but I stand on the shoulders of the people before me. I continue to strive to move forward and implement better safeguards and to keep things relevant in order to protect today’s children.”

With 57 parishes, five centers and three-dozen parish/diocesan schools in the Diocese, the responsibility of the OCYP is enormous.

Agüero works closely with three key colleagues, program coordinator Esther Ramirez, victims’ assistance coordinator Sylvia Palda and manager of internal investigations Ron Lowenberg. All four take reports from an army of boots-on-the-ground record custodians and safe environment coordinators who are embedded at every school and parish and who also respond to reports received through the diocesan reporting line.

“My department is the hub of ensuring we’re in compliance with the (USCCB) Charter,” Agüero explained.

The record custodian and safe environment coordinators ensure that adults are getting trained on the prevention of child abuse and that they receive fingerprint clearance for all adults working with minors. They also ensure that all children in diocesan schools and parishes received safety training annually.

Every year, the OCYP is audited by an independent body that also makes personal visits to the Diocese every three years, making sure that adults are trained and fingerprinted, and that youth receive training in recognizing signs of adult misconduct. “We have a system in place that is very comprehensive and robust,” Agüero said. “We take every call very seriously.”

Complaints are considered by the Oversight Review Board, made up of talented professionals who evaluate each complaint and make recommendations regarding next steps.

Though not plentiful, most of the complaints the OCYP gets have to do with boundary violations – inappropriate communication with a minor over social media, for example.

“We try to nip things in the bud and make sure that the people working with our minors have good, healthy boundaries and that we catch potential problems really soon.”

Dr. Denise Valadez, associate superintendent of Curriculum, Spirituality and Accreditation for the Diocese, works closely with Aguero.

“Norma has been an exceptional support to our office when navigating situations involving boundary issues,” Valadez said. “She’s very thorough, thoughtful and patient when it comes to handling these often challenging and sensitive cases.”

On several occasions, Valadez has gone to Agüero with a particular issue and Agüero has walked her through different options and ways to handle that situation.

“Norma always errs on the side of caution in an effort to best protect our children,” Valadez said. “She has a love for Catholic education, and she is committed to her ministry of child and youth protection. I have come to appreciate and value her thoughtful insight and commitment to the safety of our youth.”

Msgr. Stephen Doktorczyk, vicar general for legal and canonical affairs for the Diocese of Orange, is a longtime colleague of Agüero.

“Norma takes seriously her responsibilities of overseeing the Office of Child and Youth Protection,” he said. “She makes sure that the Diocese is following national standards and expectations and is proactive, always willing to train those working with young people so that they in turn can help guarantee safety for children at a particular parish or school.

“It is not uncommon for Norma to visit a site during the evening and give presentations and answer questions presented by staff and volunteers, either in English or in Spanish, and to make herself generously available to pastors, principals and others whenever needed.”

Agüero said her department continues to evolve.

“We have to be a step ahead of what’s going out there,” she said.

She added: “Abuse is never going to go away. It’s not a church problem but a societal problem, and our goal is to lower the instances of abuse.”

To decompress from a job that often can be challenging, Agüero loves to dote on her grandchildren, ages 6 and 11 and enjoys gardening.

“It’s a dark world at times,” she said of her work. “You must be cut from a certain cloth. I keep telling the Lord, ‘I will be here as long as you need me.’”

If you have been a victim of sexual abuse by clergy or a church representative, please call the Diocesan Toll-Free Reporting Line, 1-800-364-3064 as well as your local law enforcement agency.

Last year (2021-’22, the latest period for which numbers are available), the Office of Child and Youth Protection reported the following statistics.

Training completed
■ 20,475 children and youth on safe environment training (how to protect themselves)
■ 253 priests
■ 152 deacons
■ 45 candidates for ordination
■ 1,751 educators (teachers and principals)
■ 1,053 other school employees
■ 11,000 volunteers