The huge work of priests and lay people in the sphere of child safeguarding can lay the ground for further Church renewal, writes John Morgan
A key admonition of Pope Benedict XVI to his brother bishops contained in the pastoral letter to the Catholics of Ireland in March 2010, declares that ”only decisive action carried out with complete honesty and transparency will restore the respect and goodwill of the Irish people towards the Church to which we have consecrated our lives”.
He was, of course, talking about responding to the crime of child abuse.
The publication on November 30 by six bishops of reviews of child safeguarding practice in their dioceses is, we believe, a concrete example of hope in the Church’s journey of healing and renewal. These reviews demonstrate that lessons have been learnt so as to remedy past mistakes and to seek to guarantee that they will not recur.
Lay faithful, clergy and, particularly, parents and young people expect nothing less. Will these publications help the victims of abuse in the Church who have suffered so grievously? This is difficult to answer.
The board’s remit does not extend to publishing a detailed narrative or analysis of the history of the handling of the activities of any particular abuser (actual or alleged).
The national board is not a statutory body and, in addition, a complex legal environment protective of personal data must be respected. To those who have not lost hope in Christ, himself a victim of injustice and sin, we pray that it may inch them further forward in their search for inner healing, reconciliation and peace. To those whose abuse has robbed them of any faith in God all the national board can assist in doing, at a human level, is to press on with even more determination to seek to eradicate the evil of such abuse and its recurrence. At a time like this, it is pertinent also to consider alleged abusers, particularly those who have been asked to stand aside from ministry as an investigation is undertaken in relation to allegations with a ”semblance of truth”.
A heavy responsibility falls on bishops and religious congregational leaders to ensure that measures adopted, to borrow Pope Benedict XVI’s words, will be ”truly evangelical, just and effective”. Church leadership needs whatever help we can provide in these sensitive areas.
As has been reported extensively in the national media, the key findings of the reviews, across all of the six participating dioceses, evidenced a marked improvement in two key areas of safeguarding practice.
Comprehensive and prompt reporting of allegations to the statutory authorities is now the norm and, complementing this improvement, in all six dioceses the need to create and maintain a safe environment for children is fully accepted and is being implemented. This awareness and evident commitment to safeguarding children marks a real advance.
Most gratifying too is that the actual involvement is almost entirely volunteer-led. By advocating a uniform and consistent standards based approach across all Church authorities the safeguarding framework adopted and implemented will hopefully endure, supported by advances in best practice. The national board has consistently emphasised the provision of training in the process of improving safeguarding practice in any dioceses or religious congregation.
As Ian Elliott reported, an increasing number of bishops are present regularly at training events provided through the national board and that the six bishops whose reviews have been published ”are amongst the most frequent attendees at those events”. We believe that training is key.
The board has given much time to the development of comprehensive training materials to complement our ‘Safeguarding Children; Standards and Guidance’. In this work, we are very grateful to those diocesan and congregational training personnel who have given so generously of their time in assisting our staff.
Extensive consultation has also taken place with statutory and voluntary agencies – North and South. We might cite particularly the degree of collaboration between our staff and the HSE to further the important relationship between all relevant Church and HSE staff.
As a result of these detailed consultations we now have a suite of new, Church-specific, training materials ready for use. The process of appointing tutors, whose role will be to induct trainers into these materials is far advanced.
The total programme is designed to ensure that training competencies are assessed and the delivery of training is monitored, thereby ensuring that standards are maintained. This is a significant challenge for us with our ever-increasing work load and the resources available to us.
I referenced that a feature of the review process was that the active involvement on child safeguarding is almost entirely volunteer led. This cohort of volunteers is a hidden boon to the Church. Working with similarly dedicated priests a unity of purpose is increasingly apparent with the experience and sensitivity to children brought by lay volunteers contributing so much to the sense of purpose and high standards required in the continuing commitment to safeguarding young people. This cohort of volunteers fully deserves public thanks.
This development can also help lay the ground work for further Church renewal. The clerical abuse scandal will continue to change mindsets in the Church, particularly, concerning lay people – no longer just assisting the clergy but truly recognised and accepting their role as co-responsible for the Church’s being and action. We know that a shared identity binds.
We know that it is only a unifying identity and mission that will sustain us as community.
As a Church, we must build on the growing experience we are developing together in the area of safeguarding and nourishing our young people and let this lead us into new paths.
On behalf of the board, we thank each of the six bishops and their dioceses for their invitation and willingness to engage with us and their cooperation throughout the extensive review process. We hope that this exercise will assist in some acceleration of this most important work for the Church over the whole island of Ireland.
John Morgan is chairman of the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church (NBSCCC).