By Paula Katinas
PROSPECT HEIGHTS — Elizabeth Harris, a retired detective who worked with thousands of sex abuse survivors during her NYPD career, has been named to two roles in the Diocese of Brooklyn’s Office of Protection of Children and Young People.
Harris’ journey began when she joined the NYPD in 1998. In her first few years, she served at the 17th Precinct in Manhattan. She then joined the Sex Offender Monitoring Unit, a squad responsible for handling convicted offenders who had served time in jail and were now free. Sex offenders are required by state law to register their home addresses with law enforcement authorities.
“I was tasked with interviewing, monitoring, and assessing, at that point, the over 5,000 registered sex offenders in the five boroughs,” Harris said.
While she felt her work was important, she longed to do more to help victims.
“I gained some skills there, but I really wanted to go and work with the victims and hear their stories first,” she said.
It’s something she believes she will be able to accomplish as victim assistance coordinator for the diocese. Harris is responsible for providing outreach and support to survivors of clergy sex abuse, including notifying them and their families of available services — like therapy and counseling sessions. “I’m really happy to be assisting survivors in any way that’s needed,” she said. “I’m just happy to do it.”
Her top priority, she said, is to put survivors first.
“I will do the best job I can for them,” Harris explained. “I will be there to listen to them with compassion and professionalism, whether I’m dealing with past victims or any possible new victims if that should occur.”
Although she only recently started the job, Harris has had time to gather some initial impressions.
“My biggest impression is how seriously Bishop Brennan takes the issue of sex abuse and how much he wants to help survivors,” she said. “It is so inspiring to work with him.”
Harris was also named the 1722 Supervisor in the Office of Protection of Children and Young People. In that role, she will monitor priests who have been removed from ministry. The number 1722 refers to a section of Canon Law related to the removal of priests.
As one of her first duties in her new roles, Harris will be attending the Mass of Hope and Healing, an annual liturgy for survivors of sexual abuse. This year’s Mass will take place on Thursday, Oct. 13, at Resurrection Ascension Parish in Rego Park. Harris is looking forward to the Mass principally because it will provide her with the opportunity to meet victims and their families.
“Sex abuse has a devastating effect on the victim’s family too, not just the victim,” she explained.
In some ways, the job of victim assistance coordinator has similarities to her role at the NYPD’s Manhattan Child Abuse Squad, where she served for 12 years — working with victims and families to ensure justice for them.
“Detective Harris brings a unique breadth of experience that will further enhance our efforts to protect the faithful with the strong, safe environment protocols we already have in place,” Bishop Robert Brennan said in a statement after the diocese announced her appointment on Sept. 30. “I am grateful she is now sharing her expertise with the diocese to assist us in this most important mission.”
Aside from her NYPD experience, there is another reason why Harris feels she is well suited to her new job. “I’m a product of the Diocese of Brooklyn,” she said.
Harris, who is married and lives on Long Island, grew up in Queens, attended St. Mary’s Nativity School in Flushing, and is a graduate of The Mary Louis Academy in Jamaica Estates.
She attended St. John’s University for one year and then transferred to the State University of New York at Oneonta because she wanted to experience living at college. She graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Sociology and Child and Family Studies, intending to become a social worker.
Her Catholic faith and desire for service led her in a different direction. Through the Vincentian Fathers at St. John’s University, Harris joined a service organization that sent college graduates into low-income neighborhoods to teach in schools. She moved to Washington D.C., and taught for a year before returning to New York City to teach at St. Rita’s School in East New York.
Teaching wasn’t in her future, however. Instead, she followed a long-held dream of becoming a police detective. “It’s just something I always wanted to do as a child,” she recalled.
When she joined the Manhattan Child Abuse Squad, she found that her work brought her back to her college years and early career in education.
“I think my degree helped. And I think being a teacher helped — just listening to kids and working with kids. I’m so grateful that I got to work with child victims,” Harris said.
She retired from the NYPD in January 2020. She then went to work for The Safe Center of Long Island, a program in Bethpage that helps survivors of physical and sexual abuse, before coming to work for the diocese.
In her new role as victim assistance coordinator, Harris takes over for Maryellen Quinn — director of the Office of Protection of Children and Young People — who was temporarily filling the role left vacant by the resignation of Jasmine Salazar in March.
“Elizabeth’s expertise will be an asset. … We are all very excited to have her on board,” Quinn said. “She is an extremely dedicated and compassionate woman who has already, in her short time in the diocese, made a difference.”