By Cathy Harasta
The Texas Catholic
Vanna Slaughter routinely rose early each Sunday to put in a few hours of work at Catholic Charities of Dallas, where she has directed the Immigration and Legal Services Division for 31 years.
Slaughter stirred about 5:30 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 17, 2010, when she heard a bump or thump in her East Dallas home, which she shares with her cat.
“I remember saying, ‘Lilly, is that you?’ ” Slaughter said as she sat in her office almost six years later and thought back to that October morning when she was just about to greet the day. “It was a loud noise that made me think a picture might have fallen from the wall.”
The next thing she knew was that someone had broken into her house, Slaughter said as she leaned forward, almost imperceptibly, in her office chair.
“I was choking,” she said as she touched a framed photograph that was with her then, on her bedside table, and is with her now, all these years later, in her office. “I really did think I was going to die.”
Slaughter was 59 on that day when the intruder shattered two locks by kicking in her back door, tied her up with the cord from a portable fan and raped her.
Over the next four years—the time between the rape and her attacker’s sentence to 90 years in prison—Slaughter learned details about the atrocity she suffered, including that she was not the man’s first victim.
But she knew two things right away, when she stumbled through her front door, alive: Her life was still hers and the Blessed Mother had answered her prayers.
“I got free and got onto my front porch, and stood there in my bare feet and prayed, ‘Dear God, please do not let this define the rest of my life,’ ” said Slaughter, who grew up in Holy Trinity Catholic Parish. “I really had channeled the Blessed Mother and kept my focus on what I had to do to stay alive. I just invoked her power.”
Slaughter had prayed hard to the framed “McKinney Mary” photo by fine arts photographer Bob Munro. The photo sat on Slaughter’s nightstand, beside a fragrant red-beaded Rosary from Rome.
Deacon Tim Vineyard, a former Catholic Charities board president and Slaughter’s longtime friend, said that she felt blessed by Mary.
“Vanna’s faith was a reason that she could come back from this ordeal,” said Deacon Vineyard, who serves at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Richardson. “I think she feels that Christ sent his mother to her. A person could come away from something like this feeling cynical and abandoned, but I don’t think Vanna felt that way. I don’t think she wanted to be distracted from her calling of being tremendously dedicated to the poor.
“The people who have seen her at work know that she has a heart full of mercy.”
Slaughter, who is from a small family and has no close relatives near Dallas, received love and support from dear neighbors, friends and co-workers as her faith helped her begin to heal, she said.
“So many people have been there to walk with me,” said Slaughter, who is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. “It still weighs on me that I don’t know how he identified me. I talked to the Catholic Charities staff about what happened to me. I asked them to help me to let other people know that this happened to me.
“The other side of privacy is the healing that comes from speaking about it.”
Justice and Mercy
Law enforcement officials determined that Slaughter’s attacker was a serial rapist committing assaults in east Dallas. DNA evidence eventually linked Fernando Munoz, a native of Cuba and a non-USA citizen, to her rape and two previous sexual assaults, Slaughter said.
In November 2014—four years after Slaughter was assaulted—Munoz was convicted of aggravated sexual assault and sentenced to 90 years in prison.
Her long wait for justice was agonizing, but not for a moment did she ever regret or reconsider the lifetime she lovingly had devoted to helping immigrants, she said.
“It really is a ministry,” said Slaughter, an Arkansas native whose family moved to North Texas soon after her birth. “I can’t call it a job. It’s such a privilege to be privy to the people’s stories.”
She and a staff that she says she cherishes work on behalf of refugees; asylees; DREAMers; crime victims and many more undocumented people.
“I marvel that, in spite of this horrific crime, Vanna has shown incredible forgiveness, strength and bravery in continuing her important work to help immigrants,” Bishop Kevin J. Farrell said. “In this Year of Mercy, she is truly a model of Christian mercy, justice and compassion.”
Slaughter said that she has high hopes for a new program for which her division received a grant last year—Legal Aid for Survivors of Sexual Assault—which has assisted 234 clients since October.
The LASSA project provides survivors of sexual assault with a wide range of free legal services.
More than 90 percent of Texans who have been sexually assaulted did not report the assaults to law enforcement, according to the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault.
The association reported that 6.3 million Texans have experienced some form of sexual assault in their lifetimes, and that more than 94 percent of rapists roam free.
The victims of sexual assault need to know that it was not their fault, Slaughter said.
“Many victims don’t want to pursue justice,” she said. “For me, acknowledging it and talking about it has been part of my recovery. Almost everyone I share this with for the first time has a story.”
Faith and Courage
Slaughter was never afraid to go to any of the hard places.
In fact, she signed up to go to parts of the world where few in their young womanhood would have ventured.
As an international relief worker after she received her Master of Social work degree from Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, Slaughter served with Catholic Relief Services in South America.
“It was really an eye-opener,” she said. “It was transformational.”
But shock and grief rocked Slaughter in Bolivia, when a colleague allowed some officials of the newly elected government to borrow his lodgings while he was away, she said.
“He returned to find them dead—bludgeoned,” she said. “It was heartbreaking. I was a little naïve. But Catholic Relief Services planted a really important seed in me in terms of human rights issues.”
She returned to the U.S. in 1983, when her dad’s health was declining.
“Missionaries always say that the hardest part is coming back,” she said with a smile. “It was a lonely and kind of depressing time. I remember going into a mega-grocery store to buy laundry soap, and there was such a wide range to choose from. I fell into tears. The abundance and consumerism was overwhelming.”
She said that she reached out to the Diocese of Dallas and began to sense that she was healing with the love she found in the Holy Cross Catholic Church community.
Slaughter, who had served a graduate school internship at the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in Washington D.C. in 1978, began volunteering in the immigration program at Catholic Charities.
The late Msgr. Kilian Broderick, the then-executive director of Catholic Charities of Dallas, hired Slaughter to direct the agency’s Immigration and Legal Services Division, where she has served for 31 years.
“Vanna is a gift to the Dallas community,” said Sister Mary Anne Owens, SSND, who served as Catholic Charities of Dallas’ executive director from 1998-2011. “She has a great sense of calling for this work. She is committed to the plight of immigrants. She knows more about immigration law than most immigration lawyers.”
Sister Mary Anne said that she never will forget Slaughter’s courage in carrying on her ministry with unwavering passion after the assault.
“She really had been beaten up pretty badly,” Sister Mary Anne said. “There were some precautions taken by Catholic Charities. Vanna was very smart. She got the help she needed. I’ve admired her courage and willingness to speak out and let women know it’s not their fault. Rape has become such an issue in our society, with drugs and date-rape.
“It’s not only Vanna’s compassion, but also her sense that justice issues need to be handled.”
Lucy Panza, a Catholic Charities volunteer and parishioner at St. Ann Catholic Church in Coppell, said that Slaughter’s professionalism and willingness to share her story reinforce her reputation as a selfless human rights advocate.
“The attack on Vanna was brutal in every sense of the word,” Panza said. “I know she is healed but I don’t think you ever really forget. I’ve seen her return to her old self, strong and courageous, with an even greater sense of purpose.”