Church faces two dangers on safeguarding children

Opinion: Complacency and constant condemnation are key problems

Pope Francis: “The cases of abuse are terrible because they leave very profound wounds. Benedict XVI was very courageous and opened the way”. Photograph: Stefano Rellandini/Reuters

Pope Francis: “The cases of abuse are terrible because they leave very profound wounds. Benedict XVI was very courageous and opened the way”. Photograph: Stefano Rellandini/Reuters


The appointment of Marie Collins to the new Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors is highly significant. It is a tribute to Marie Collins herself, who has been an articulate and dedicated campaigner on issues of child sexual abuse.

She made an impressive presentation at a major international summit on child abuse in 2012 at Rome’s Jesuit-run Gregorian University, which was co-sponsored by several Vatican departments.

Some 100 representatives of bishops’ conferences and 30 religious superiors attended the conference, and some were visibly shaken and moved by hearing what a victim had to say.

Other members of the new commission include Rev Hans Zollner, the vice-rector of the Gregorian University, a psychologist who organised the 2012 seminar, and Baroness Sheila Hollins, a British psychiatrist and former president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

Half the current commission’s members are women, and they are all heavy-hitters, including a former prime minister of Poland, Hannah Suchocka, who was appointed as prime minister under Lech Walesa, because she was highly regarded by politicians from many different parts of the political spectrum.

While this appointment is firstly and most importantly a tribute to Marie Collins, it might also be taken as an acknowledgment of the role played by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin in combating child abuse, and of the thousands of trained volunteers actively involved in child safeguarding in the church.

Collins has already criticised Pope Francis for his comments in the Corriere Della Serra interview of March 5th. He had said he wished “to say two things. The cases of abuse are terrible because they leave very profound wounds. Benedict XVI was very courageous and opened the way.

Advances made
“And, following that way, the church advanced a lot, perhaps more than anyone.

“The statistics on the phenomenon of violence against children are shocking, but they also show clearly that the great majority of the abuses come from the family environment and from people who are close.

The Catholic Church is perhaps the only public institution that moved with transparency and responsibility. No one else did as much. And yet, the church is the only one being attacked.”

There is some truth, however, in what he says. Among other achievements, Benedict put a stop to the rampages of Mexican priest Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, who had led a sick and twisted life.

Under Benedict, tremendous strides were made regarding child protection, but it is also true that countries such as the US and Ireland were starting from a place of denial and paralysis. Other countries are struggling to catch up, and some have barely started.

Here in Ireland, we had Bishop Jim Moriarty resigning because he “failed to challenge the culture”, not for any personal action that harmed a child.

However, that was his personal decision. Bishops have not always been held to account by the Vatican for active failures in child safeguarding, although it was possible to remove the so-called Bishop of Bling, German bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, who had carried out lavish renovations costing some €31 million.

Accountability and credibility
There has to be accountability, or credibility will be lost. Here in Ireland, it is tragic that Ian Elliott, the Northern Presbyterian who headed up the independent body responsible for child safeguarding in the church, appears to be at loggerheads regarding a review of the Down and Connor diocese with the organisation he did so much to foster.

The National Safeguarding Board issued a statement to the Irish Catholic , setting out its case, and its reasons as to why it believes the reviews of dioceses that it issues are scrupulously fair and independent, but the shadow still remains so long as Ian Elliott does not declare himself satisfied with that response.

For the sake of both Elliott and his former colleagues on the board and, most importantly, for the credibility of the Irish church’s safeguarding process, it is vital that this row be sorted out.

In the Irish church, when it comes to the church and safeguarding, there are two dangers: that of complacency that all is now well, and that of constant condemnation that fails to acknowledge any positive change at all.

Despite the current controversy with Elliott, a great deal has been achieved by the church, not least the existence of the independent national board, and a huge cadre of highly trained volunteers, who now ensure that children involved in church activities are as safe as any child can be.

What about the rest of Irish society? There has never been the same interest in cases involving the State rather than the church.

This has often been blamed on the media, yet the reality is that some journalists have relentlessly documented State failures, but the public has remained largely indifferent.

Why, too, has there been no updating of the Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland report first issued in 2002? I hope it is not because the constant public focus on the church has allowed us to remain in denial of the huge problems we still have in the wider Irish society.

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