I’m in Rome this week attending the unprecedented meeting on the protection of minors within the Church. Primate of All-Ireland Archbishop Eamon – as president of the Irish bishops’ conference – is here sharing the experiences of the Church in Ireland with his brother bishops.
Even before the summit got underway this morning (Thursday) people were keen to dial down expectations. Organisers insist that one four-day meeting is not sufficient to address such a major crisis. What they are convinced of, however, is that the meeting will be a decisive step on the road to helping the global Church to face up to this issue.
The abuse of children and vulnerable adults is not a problem exclusive to the Catholic Church, it is a problem all across society. There will always be people who have malevolent intentions towards children. What is necessary as a Church is that the policies and procedures are in place to ensure that such people do not have the opportunity to abuse and ensure that policies and procedures are in place to create a culture of accountability and ensure that those who are shown to present a risk to children have no place within the family of families that is the Church.
The Church in Ireland has a good news story to tell on the issue of abuse. The hard-won guidelines that are in place across the entire Church here truly are the gold standard – and are acknowledged as such by independent verification.
The mistakes made in the past in trying to come to terms with this crisis have been learnt. Key to that was understanding the absolute necessity of a ‘one Church’ approach where each and every entity in the Church in Ireland was held to the same standard and followed the same procedures. A vital ingredient in this has been the outstanding supervisory work of the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church (NBSCCC).
Vital to the success of safeguarding standards in the Church is engagement from people all across the Church. We can take humble pride in the fact that there is an army of committed lay Catholics in parishes and religious institutes all across Ireland who have stepped up to the plate to take on responsibility for safeguarding in their community. It is, in fact, a wonderful example of co-responsibility within the Church where people take seriously the call of their baptism to have responsibility for building up the Body of Christ, the Church.
There are many parts of the world – particularly in developing countries – where there is not yet the heightened awareness about abuse and safeguarding that is now part and parcel of ecclesial life in Ireland. Here, the Church in Ireland can have a sacred mission to help other countries and cultures evolve their understanding. God knows, this is a humble mission given the past failings and the history of disappointment and betrayal that has been part of the journey. But, this is truly something that the Church in Ireland can help the Church universal to understand.
This Rome meeting will not solve the issue of abuse, but it will be a success if bishops who believe that abuse is not an issue in their country or culture can be brought to understand that it is and it is something they must face with honesty and humility.
Catholics will also be looking to Rome to ensure that the key piece of the jigsaw that is accountability also becomes the norm. It is not good enough that those who are negligence in their governance of the Church simply retire discreetly. An important step in rebuilding confidence in the Church and the hierarchy’s moral authority will be obvious signs that people are held to account.
Michael Kelly is co-author of a new book with Austen Ivereigh How to Defend the Faith – Without Raising Your Voice – it is available from Columba Books.