Pam Russo returns to Diocese in new cabinet-level position

Pam Russo, Secretary for Youth Protection and Catholic Human Services, in her new office.

By PAUL WIRTH Diocesan Communications Staff

Pam Russo is Secretary for Youth Protection and Catholic Human Services, a new, cabinet-level leadership position in the Diocese of Allentown.

Bishop Alfred Schlert created the position to further strengthen programs to prevent abuse and keep children safe. It is part of the on-going, comprehensive response to the clergy sexual abuse crisis in the Diocese of Allentown.

During her first week on the job, The A.D. Times spoke with Russo about her plans and priorities in her new role.

Q. You are stepping into a critical role at a critical time. What are your thoughts on that?
This truly is a critical time, for our Diocese and for our Church. The Diocese of Allentown is about to launch a compensation program for victims of abuse, American Bishops are developing a formal process to hold themselves accountable, and we are working to restore credibility with Catholics who have been shaken by the terrible sins of the past, here in the Allentown Diocese, and around the world.

Q. Given those challenges, tell us about what went through your mind as you agreed to take the job.
Bishop Schlert has made it very clear that the Diocese of Allentown has a policy of Zero Tolerance on abuse: If there is an accusation, the priest is removed from ministry immediately, law enforcement is notified right away and the Diocese acts with transparency.
Beyond that, the Bishop is committed to accountability, for himself, and for everyone in the Diocese.
We have no greater challenge than to keep children safe, and I want to be part of that as we continue to improve protections and policies we already have in place. I will never be satisfied. There is always room for improvement.

Q. How have your past experiences prepared you for the task ahead?
As a social worker, and through my experience at Catholic Charities agencies, I have worked with survivors of abuse. I have seen the terrible toll abuse can take on people. It’s clear that much has changed for the better in the Diocese of Allentown in the past 17 years, and that incidences of abuse have been drastically reduced. We need to continue to improve. We can never let down our guard.

Q. Do you have any thoughts on the results of the Vatican summit on abuse prevention?
I was encouraged to see the determination the Holy Father has to eliminate abuse, and I was reassured to learn that American Bishops are developing a formal process for Bishop accountability. It’s our responsibility as Catholics to take the lead on reform for the terrible problem of child abuse, which occurs not only in the Church, but in the home, and in every segment of society around the world.

Q. What are the main ways that the Diocese of Allentown prevents abuse and keeps children safe?
Besides our Zero-Tolerance policy of immediate removal and reporting to law enforcement, we also have rigorous background checks for clergy, lay personnel and volunteers in parishes and ministries. We train thousands of volunteers, priests, deacons, seminarians, religious, employees, school principals, teachers and others on how to recognize and prevent abuse.
We have a Diocesan Review Board of lay professional experts to advise the Bishop on matters of abuse. We ensure thorough screening of candidates for the Priesthood. And we have a designated Safe Environment Coordinator, Victim Assistance Coordinator and Charter Compliance Officer, all of whom report directly to me.

Q. What role will you play in the planned compensation fund for victims and survivors?
I will be available to assist victims and survivors as they report their experiences and apply for compensation. The Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program will begin operation soon.

Q. What are your priorities in the weeks and months ahead?
One of my priorities will be to launch a thorough review of all current diocesan policies and procedures on preventing abuse. Following this review, I may be recommending improvements and seeing those improvements through to completion.
As we pray for forgiveness from victims and survivors, and as we demonstrate genuine remorse for the failings of some in our Church, we need to continue to go beyond talk and show action and accountability. We need to rebuild trust through our actions.

AD Times Editor’s note: Russo also oversees Catholic Human Services and the Diocese’s ministries that protect vulnerable adults. In those capacities, reporting to her will be the head of Catholic Senior Housing and Health Care Services, and the executive director of Catholic Charities.

Russo is the former executive director of Catholic Charities of Tennessee in Nashville, the largest Catholic Charities organization in the state, with 170 employees and a budget of $20 million. Prior to that, she worked as the Diocese of Allentown’s Secretary for Catholic Human Services.