By Dani Villalobos, contributing writer
When Danielle Cummings signed on as director of communications for the Diocese of Syracuse in 1996, she assumed she would be serving her community by composing press releases on ice cream socials and special masses.
Instead, Cummings was thrown into a whirlwind of a changing Catholic culture. The newsletters morphed into updates on school closings and priests suffering from serious ailments. And after The Boston Globe broke the story on a sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church in 2002, Cummings assisted others in a way she never anticipated.
The religious and administrative leaders looked to Cummings on how to address this within the Syracuse area. While some were baffled by her ability to remain faithful to her beliefs, Cummings views her being there as a blessing and confirmed it was the work of a higher power.
“I think it was important to have a woman in this role, and I think it was important to have a mother in this role,” said Cummings. “You want to show them love and I think that’s something we are gifted with as women in expressing to others. To have that during the sex abuse crisis was essential.”
As the face of local church communications, Cummings listened to people share their personal stories. She helped free them of their burdens and encouraged them to seek counseling. And on a national level, the reaction to the crisis propelled the creation of the Safe Environment Program, which now has approximately 30,000 members trained on sexual abuse awareness.
“I’ve met so many strong women who have told their stories and are now stepping up and helping others,” she said. “I know in looking back it sounds odd, but working through this will probably be one of the highlights in my career.”
In 2009, Cummings took on an additional title as assistant chancellor. At the time, acting as the first woman to fill this position was lost on her. It wasn’t until the positive messages of “It’s about time!” and national recognition from MSNBC’s Chris Matthews reached her office that she realized her new role was revolutionary. But the true advantages for Cummings lie not in the publicity of her profession; they are the added responsibilities and opportunities for conversation that have presented themselves as a result of this move.
With outreach in seven counties, 833 parishes, 24 schools and other social-service entities, Cummings is able to make those connections with people who need neighborhoods cleaned; support a Cub Scout group to organize clothing drives; and even arrange for wells to be installed in an African village.
“There’s always something to do, and again, it’s one of those good fortunes that I’m in a place where you can hear about ways to help,” Cummings said. “Not only are you helping a community, but you are helping a family, helping a person. It feels good.”