Guidelines on child sexual abuse


DETAILED GUIDELINES on how religious authorities should respond to allegations of child sexual abuse by clerical and lay persons have been published by the National Board for the Safeguarding of Children in the Catholic Church. To be effective, procedures have to be rigorously implemented at all levels. And the unfortunate history of this difficult area is that three other attempts at ethical rule-making have failed to achieve the desired results. A culture of denial and cover-up continues to survive within the Catholic Hierarchy.

This time, the outcome may be different. Certainly, an opportunity has been created for Catholic bishops and religious orders to confront their shameful responses to the horrors of child sexual abuse and to shake off the unforgiving hand of history.

New reporting and investigative structures will have to be formally adopted by bishops and the heads of religious orders. Civil agencies, such as the Health Service Executive and the Garda Síochána, will have to be advised of allegations involving sexual abuse and members of the clergy as soon as possible. And, most importantly, a series of audits will have to be conducted at local, diocesan and national level to establish the efficacy of the new arrangements.

The proposed structures will have a capacity to reach out into the wider community and identify and confront all forms of child abuse. The day of turning a blind eye and exercising excessive caution, because of the risk of giving scandal, may be drawing to a close. Not alone will contact names and numbers be available in all churches to encourage people to get in touch with a specially trained individual to report cases of current and historic abuse, but concerns and suspicions may also be voiced by third parties. From there, cases will be referred upwards to a salaried official at diocesan level for preliminary investigation. Civil authorities will be involved in consultation and possible prosecution. And audits will be conducted to ensure transparency and efficacy.

The national board has recognised that “immense progress” has been made by the Catholic Church in addressing the issue of clerical sex abuse. But because a multiplicity of guidelines and interpretations now exist in different dioceses, it felt that uniform standards incorporating child protection legislation were required. The protection of children was its primary aim. The bishops said yes.

But concerns remain. It is clear the level of co-operation the national board received varied from diocese to diocese. The report refers pointedly to “many”, rather than “all”, in their commitment to openness. And while the child abuse reporting structures are commendably transparent, the role of advisory panels to bishops and the position of canon law could inhibit change.

The national board is explicit about what needs to be done: a culture of accountability should be established and those bishops responsible for poor practice should be asked to resign, to ensure mistakes are not repeated. It is a requirement that should apply to all sectors of society.