Intervention: From fear to empowerment

Julie Filby

This story originally appeared in the Denver Catholic Register Sept. 21, 2011. September is National Alcohol and Drug Addiction Recovery Month. This was the first in a two-part series on intervention. Click here for part 2, “Experts dispel common myths about intervention.”

Jheri Newell’s son John Paul, 30, had turned into someone she didn’t recognize. Her talented, sensitive, articulate, thoughtful son had withdrawn; he wouldn’t look her in the eyes; and he began lying and stealing—to the point that it landed him in jail for 17 days.

Over the course of two years, J.P. had become addicted to drugs. It started with Vicodin prescribed for a toothache, continued with Oxycontin, and ultimately led to an addiction to heroin.

“I realized he was turning into someone I didn’t know,” said Newell, a Catholic who attends various churches in the Denver Archdiocese. “The addiction started to really manipulate his personality, it’s insidious.”

Newell prayed that God would provide the help her family needed.

“I was overwhelmed with emotion because, you know, this is my loved one,” she said, breaking down and acknowledging the situation continues to weigh on her today. “You’re afraid …you’re just afraid …and then you start praying even harder than you usually do.

“It’s a matter of trusting that the right people are going to come into your life to help you with the situation,” she said.

In response to her prayers, she met Stephen Wilkins, a trained intervention provider.

On Dec. 1, 2010, Newell sat down with Wilkins at a restaurant for an hour and a half to discuss the situation and the possibility of conducting a family-structured intervention for J.P.

“We talked about how I felt, where I was in the process, where JP was in the process,” she said, “my expectations, my plans, and how an intervention actually works.”

A family-structured intervention is a process that involves several people, usually four to eight, that prepare as a group to approach a loved one who is involved in a self-destructive behavior, such as alcohol abuse, drug addiction, gambling, an eating disorder or other health problem.

An intervention aims to motivate an individual to accept help for the addiction or behavioral issue, put relationships on the road to healing, and raise an individual’s self-esteem so he or she believes she can succeed at recovering.

“This is a loving process,” said Wilkins, a parishioner of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Denver, who has been doing interventions for eight years. “Everybody that participates in a family-structured intervention has the opportunity to start getting well, everybody. It’s my job to shepherd them through this process with as little anxiety as possible.”

Interventionists such as Wilkins—and Howie Madigan, who has assisted with some 2,400 interventions since 1974 and co-founded the National Center for Intervention—equip families with the tools needed to get treatment for loved ones. Appropriate treatments vary by individual and may include counseling, community-based programs, outpatient treatment or inpatient treatment.

“The truth is families are not equipped to deal with alcoholics and addicts,” said Wilkins, who is a recovering alcoholic of nine years. “They wear themselves out with the best of intentions.”

Wilkins generally provides two training sessions of three to five hours with a family prior to an intervention. Newell was grateful for the educational and therapeutic benefits of the training.

“Educating yourself through an interventionist is absolutely amazing because you’re now out of fear and into empowerment—it’s absolutely priceless,” she said. “Once you have someone guiding you … you know you’re doing the right thing, and you’re being pushed along by God.”

On Feb. 8, Newell gathered four of J.P.’s closest family members and friends at a relative’s home, along with Wilkins, for an intervention. Each participant had prepared a letter that they read aloud to J.P.

“It’s very powerful to hear the voice along with the words,” she said. “And of course it’s emotional because the letters are very heartfelt and honest … it’s an incredible level of honesty. At the end of the letter, you ask: ‘Will you get help?’”

After more than two hours, Newell—along with Wilkins and J.P.’s younger brother—started the drive to a treatment facility; one that she had carefully researched and chosen in advance. After a few diversions along the way, including J.P. jumping out of the car at one point, she delivered her son safely to treatment.

“I know he has the faith, strength and stamina to get through this,” she said.

It is estimated when an intervention is done professionally, 85-90 percent of people, nationally, get some kind of treatment.

Madigan, a recovering alcoholic of 44 years, understands the power of addiction.

“The truth for an addict or an alcoholic is the single most important relationship in their life is the relationship they have with the thing they’re addicted to,” said the 76-year-old parishioner of Immaculate Conception in Lafayette. “They’ll sacrifice all other relationships, including their relationship with God most of the time, to stay with it.”

Newell believes the experience deepened her relationship with God.

“I didn’t realize how far I had gone from my relationship with God,” she said. “This experience has changed me immensely. I really had to trust God in a different manner…I really needed God more.”

This trust helped her deal with fear.

“At first I was afraid, but in order to really help an addict, it’s not about you—it’s about the steps that are needed to help that person,” she said. “Trust that God will give you the tools. The healing starts to happen; and it’s amazing what unfolds.”



National Catholic Council on Alcoholism and Related Drug Problems or 800-626-6910 Ext. 200


National Center for Intervention

Intervention services or group presentations (parish, parent or community groups)

Stephen Wilkins

720-366-4736 or [email protected]


Interventionist training



National Catholic Council on Alcoholism and Related Drug Problems or 800-626-6910, Ext. 1200


Denver Area Central Committee of Alcoholics Anonymous or 303-322-4440 (24-hour hotline)


Recovery retreats based on 12-step spirituality

Sacred Heart Jesuit Retreat House

4801 N. Highway 67, Sedalia or 303-688-4198 Ext. 100

COMING UP: A last chance for Australian justice

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My late parents loved Cardinal George Pell, whom they knew for decades. So I found it a happy coincidence that, on November 12 (which would have been my parents’ 70th wedding anniversary), a two-judge panel of Australia’s High Court referred to the entire Court the cardinal’s request for “special leave” to appeal his incomprehensible conviction on charges of “historic sexual abuse,” and the even-more-incomprehensible denial of his appeal against that manifestly unsafe verdict.

Thus in 2020 the highest judicial authority in Australia will review the Pell case, which gives the High Court the opportunity to reverse a gross injustice and acquit the cardinal of a hideous crime: a “crime” that Pell insists never happened; a “crime” for which not a shred of corroborating evidence has yet been produced; a “crime” that simply could not have happened in the circumstances and under the conditions it was alleged to have been committed.

Since Cardinal Pell’s original appeal was denied in August by two of three judges on an appellate panel in the State of Victoria, the majority decision to uphold Pell’s conviction has come under withering criticism for relying primarily on the credibility of the alleged victim. As the judge who voted to sustain the cardinal’s appeal pointed out (in a dissent that one distinguished Australian attorney described as the most important legal document in that country’s history), witness credibility – a thoroughly subjective judgment-call – is a very shaky standard by which to find someone guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” It has also been noted by fair-minded people that the dissenting judge, Mark Weinberg, is the most respected criminal jurist in Australia, while his two colleagues on the appellate panel had little or no criminal law experience. Weinberg’s lengthy and devastating critique of his two colleagues’ shallow arguments seemed intended to signal the High Court that something was seriously awry here and that the reputation of Australian justice – as well as the fate of an innocent man – was at stake.

Other recent straws in the wind Down Under have given hope to the cardinal’s supporters that justice may yet be done in his case.

Andrew Bolt, a television journalist with a nationwide audience, walked himself through the alleged series of events at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne, within the timeframe in which they were supposed to have occurred, and concluded that the prosecution’s case, and the decisions by both the convicting jury and the majority of the appeal panel, simply made no sense. What was supposed to have happened could not have happened how it did and when it did.

Australians willing to ignore the vicious anti-Pell polemics that have fouled their country’s public life for years also heard from two former workers at the cathedral, who stated categorically that what was alleged to have happened could not have happened how it did and when it did, because they were a few yards away from Cardinal Pell at the precise time he was alleged to have abused two choirboys.

Then there was Anthony Charles Smith, a veteran criminal attorney (and not a Catholic), who wrote in Annals Australasia that the Pell verdict and the denial of his appeal “curdles my stomach.” How, he asked, could a guilty verdict be rendered on “evidence….so weak and bordering on the preposterous?” The only plausible answer, he suggested, was that Pell’s “guilt” was assumed by many, thanks to “an avalanche of adverse publicity” ginned up by “a mob baying for Pell’s blood” and influencing “a media [that] should always be skeptical.”

Even more strikingly, the left-leaning Saturday Paper, no friend of Cardinal Pell or the Catholic Church, published an article in which Russell Marks – a one-time research assistant on an anti-Pell book – argued that the two judges on the appellate panel who voted to uphold the cardinal’s conviction “effectively allowed no possible defense for Pell: there was nothing his lawyers could have said or done, because the judges appeared to argue it was enough to simply believe the complainant on the basis of his performance under cross examination.”

The Australian criminal justice system has stumbled or failed at every stage of this case. The High Court of Australia can break that losing streak, free an innocent man, and restore the reputation of Australian justice in the world. Whatever the subsequent fallout from the rabid Pell-haters, friends of justice must hope that that is what happens when the High Court hears the cardinal’s case – Australia’s Dreyfus Case – next year.

Photo: CON CHRONIS/AFP/Getty Images