Danger of Church Colluding in False Abuse Impression
By Michael Kelly
April 28, 2016
"I sometimes also wonder about the centrality and prominence that safeguarding has taken in the life of the Church”, writes Editor, Michael Kelly
The watchdog set up to monitor the Church’s adherence to stringent child protection rules has published a new set of ‘standards’. Amongst other things, the document aims to redress a perception that a priest who is accused of abuse is treated unfairly. These concerns have been particularly evident when a priest has been stood aside, forced to leave his home and months, or even years later, is found to have no case to answer.
The new standards from the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church (NBSCCC) are currently being rolled out across all 26 dioceses and, evidently, have been well received.
I can say without fear of contradiction that the Catholic Church in Ireland is now governed by some of the strictest policies and procedures in the country when it comes to safeguarding children and vulnerable adults.
The heightened sense around safeguarding is only to be welcomed and it is to the Church’s credit that such a comprehensive job of work has been undertaken.
In parishes and communities up and down the country there is a veritable army of volunteers charged with implementing safeguarding policies – it has, in fact, been one of the largest lay-led initiatives in the Catholic Church in Ireland in decades. Literally thousands of Catholic parishioners have volunteered their time and energy to ensure that the Church is a safe environment.
I am always struck by this when I visit churches around the country. But I sometimes also wonder about the centrality and prominence that safeguarding has taken in the life of the Church. Quite often, when I visit a parish an entire noticeboard is dedicated to posters about safeguarding.
There are contact numbers for the local person responsible for safeguarding, and often for the civil authorities as well. It is made very clear that anyone with a concern should raise it immediately with the appropriate person. There too – more often than not – is a very detailed policy document outlining the procedures to be followed in the parish.
No one can be left in any doubt that the vital work of safeguarding is now a top priority for parishes and religious communities.
But, is there a danger that the ‘in your face’ nature of safeguarding policies and displays in our parishes runs the risk of giving the wrong impression?
For example, it’s a good idea to always be aware of pickpockets. But, when I arrive at a public building that has specific signs warning about pickpockets, I automatically think this place must be somewhat of a blackspot for that crime.
In my experience, sports clubs, swimming pools and other places where young people may be present do not have the same almost alarmist approach to highlighting safeguarding policies. What do people think when they arrive at a church or other religious building that have prominent warnings about the danger of child abuse?
Don’t get me wrong. The heightened awareness of safeguarding is a good thing, and where there has been an obvious laxity in the past, a rigid adherence to procedures is necessary. But we do need to be careful about the message – conscious or otherwise – that we are sending out.
It would be a shame indeed were people to have the impression that Church settings are high-risk environments.
Recent research revealed that seven in 10 Irish people overestimate prevalence of abusers among the clergy. Worryingly, a quarter of Irish people surveyed said they believed that 40% or more of all priests have abused a child.
The most authoritative estimate to date, conducted in the US, puts the true number of priests who have been subject to allegations of abuse at 4%, and only a fraction of these have been found guilty.
It would be dreadful if the Church was unwittingly colluding in creating a false perception around priests and abuse.