As the new full-time Safe Environment Director for the Diocese of Gallup, Fran Palochak will oversee the policies and practices that ensure churches, clergy, and personnel are trained in combating abuse.
Palochak is a Navy Veteran who worked for the court system for 26 years and served on the Gallup City Council. As a court clerk, she quickly realized how different forms of abuse – especially domestic violence – were widespread and underreported.
“When I got hired, the Family Protection Law was only six months old. And so the legislature, in their wisdom, developed this law and said litigants could come in on their own and file. But they didn’t provide us with the resources to give to them,” she recalls. Palochak joined with several judges and attorneys to create a more streamlined process to help a litigant obtain a protection order.
“I’ll tell you, you have to be brave to come forward and say that you’ve been assaulted. Because I can tell you that people don’t believe you. And that was so true even when we’d have a trial and a jury was present.”
At the urging of her husband, Palochak ran for and won a seat on the Gallup City Council after she retired from a career in the courts. One of her first objectives involved reforming police response to assault cases, especially those involving the homeless.
“I [wanted] this city to do a proclamation saying that they will start by believing, that their police will believe those people when they come to them. They will not treat them like dirt. Because we would see street women that would pass out in the street and be assaulted, and the police would become very indifferent to their plight.”
The city adopted this new approach, but over time, Palochak felt like “the Lord was calling” her to work for the Church. Then one day, she learned of the opening for a Safe Environment Coordinator at the Diocese.
“I [was] very interested in doing this job because my heart is with these victims,” she said, recalling that people would often ask her why she didn’t leave the Catholic Church because of the sex abuse crisis. “Because it’s my church. The church is not the priest. It’s the people. So in my church, I’m going to do everything I can to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”
After years of firsthand experience in legal and civic institutions, Palochak said she’s pleased overall with the policies and training implemented in dioceses throughout the United States.
“We want to make sure that our children and our vulnerable adults are safe. When we’re out there, everybody that volunteers is representing the Church. They’re supposed to be trusted, and we don’t want our children to get injured trying to come and worship God. They should feel safe when they come, and we all have to be the eyes and ears for those kids and vulnerable adults.”
Her biggest challenge in her role so far has been spreading awareness of the importance of safe environment practices to all corners of the diocese, especially to lay people and volunteers.
“You know, Satan is out there too. He wants us to not be faithful. We have to be faithful. We have to keep praying that there’ll be a resolution, that [predators] will be caught. So I think the majority of what I’m hoping to accomplish is just to make everybody compliant, to go out there and visit and not be the big bad diocese. We’re here to help you. We’re not here to hinder you.”
In her free time, Palochak loves volunteering in music ministry for St. Francis in Gallup, practicing her public speaking skills as a member of Toastmasters, and baking bizcochitos.
But she’s happiest when working for the Church – a lesson passed down from her mother. Unable to receive Communion because she married a divorced man who had not received an annulment, her mother would always stress to her “don’t give up Jesus”.
“I had never been able to receive Jesus again because I married your dad, and I’m telling you, don’t give up Jesus, because that has been the saddest part of my life,” she recalls her mother saying.
“And so that has stuck with me forever.”
She hopes that the Church as an institution, including the laity, will continue to address the sex abuse crisis and implement safe environment practices.
“We all need to be educated about sexual abuse. We’re not proud of what happened in our Church. But we want to make sure it never happens again. The more educated we can be about sexual assault and what we can do to prevent it, the stronger we become.”