A Single Safeguarding Strategy – Learning from Past Mistakes

Ian Elliott

The Furrow, Jan 2014

At the end of June this year, I stood down from my post as Chief Executive Officer for the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church in Ireland. Over the course of the preceding six years most objective observers would agree that great progress had been made in addressing the problem of inadequate safeguarding services within the Church in Ireland. It was felt by many that finally the corner had been turned and all was set fair for a return to normality within the Irish Church. No more crises or damaging revelations but a return to a confident and growing Church. All that would be needed to sustain this progress would now be done without hesitation. It is this latter perception that I want to examine in the light of the evidence available.

I strongly assert that safeguarding the vulnerable child within Church is of critical and fundamental importance not only to the child, but to the institution itself. A priest friend of mine summed up the situation very well when he posed the question: ‘How can we expect the message of Christ’s love for the vulnerable to be thought of as credible when it is delivered by an institution that has so often failed to protect its most vulnerable members, children?’

Effective safeguarding of those who are vulnerable within the Church goes to the very heart of the core purpose of the Church itself. To not provide adequate safeguards for the protection of those at risk, is to miss the point as to why the Church exists in the first place.

In the past major errors of judgement have been made by those who have held positions of leadership and authority in the Irish Church. They failed to provide adequate safeguards and, as a consequence, the Church became the subject of repeated public scrutiny. In every case, it was shown to be neglectful of its duty of care towards children. Heart-breaking stories came into the public domain detailing horrific abuse, the betrayal of trust, and failure to act. Victims were often not listened to or believed. Opportunities to prevent further abuse were squandered in the mistaken belief that these issues were best managed within the Church rather than outside. History has shown how wrong this view was and how damaging it was for all concerned.

There have been many attempts to explain why these tragic events occurred. None has fully succeeded. The search for a single cause is misguided, I believe, but much can be gained from seeking to learn the lessons from the numerous past mistakes and applying that learning to current practice and decision-making. There was no single cause but rather an accumulation of many factors which together gave rise to the emergence of the clerical abuse problem within the Church.

If you examine the abusive career of any of the infamous and prolific perpetrators that have been identified within the Church, you will be struck by the fact that for each offender there is at least one and sometimes several individuals who were in leadership and had the opportunity to intervene but did not do so. The reasons for their actions are, I suspect, varied but the outcome was always the same, the extension of the abusive career of the offender.

When you examine these circumstances a number of key areas for learning emerge. One that I wish to highlight relates to the inability of the Church authority to which the offender belonged, to consistently identify and report concerns. Effective safeguarding demands vigilance and a willingness to report concerns to the appropriate authorities. Sadly, the state has, on occasions, had to take on this role through compulsory intervention into the life of the Church. Too often the individuals that held a responsibility to monitor risky behaviour within the Church, failed to do so. It is also true that state services were often ineffective and failed to respond in a way that held the Church to account.

The existence of policies and procedures in themselves are no guarantee that practice will comply with them. As has been shown through public scrutiny, policies did exist in Church authorities but they were not always followed. In at least one case, the Church authority itself was misrepresenting what was happening and was not providing a true account of their practice.

It is this issue of compliance with agreed standards of practice and truthful reporting on them that I particularly want to highlight. I have always felt that the most important part of the remit given to the National Board was the monitoring of safeguarding practice across all of the Church. It is not enough to agree to adhere to a certain standard, you have to be willing to be examined to ensure that your practice meets that standard.

Monitoring practice in the Church in this area is not an easy task. There are heightened sensitivities amongst those being reviewed. This can lead to resistances and barriers being placed in your way. In the case of the National Board these were overcome and a credible review process for safeguarding practice was implemented.

It is essential that this should continue and that it should be seen not as an event but as a continuing process that needs to become part of the life of the Church, as it should be for every organisation that provides services to children on this island. Reviews should not be seen as a ‘one off’ task. Rather they should be accepted as a necessary part of achieving continuous improvement in safeguarding practice within the Church. The structure of safeguarding services should reflect this and resources should be made available to set it in place.

When you examine the decisions that have been taken in recent years with regard to safeguarding services in the Church you see a proliferation of new resources. Skilled and experienced individuals have been recruited from statutory children’s services to new posts within dioceses and other Church authorities. Although this investment is to be welcomed, it is concerning that a similar level of commitment has not been shown to the National Board itself. On the contrary, its budget has been reduced, year on year, for the-last four years. From a staffing perspective, it has less resources than some dioceses.
This may not seem to be a matter that should concern people but I would assert that it is. History has shown that the effective monitoring of practice within the Church requires independence, and adequate resources. I would argue that to site investment within individual Church authorities, and to starve the National Board of the support that it requires, is running the risk of a lapse back to poor risk management or possibly worse. I see no justification for it other than a desire to limit the role of the Board by covert means.

I would argue that there has to be investment in and support for a viable National Board at the centre of the Church. It has to have a level of resources to allow it to fulfil its remit. It also should be given the authority to examine practice where there is a concern that poor work has taken place. At present, it is forced to work on a consent basis alone. If it is not invited into a Church authority, it has no way of gaining entry. To be seen as a credible monitor, it has to be given the power to intervene where it believes circumstances warrant it.

One of the common misperceptions that existed amongst many within the Church was that the operation of the Board was something that was not in the best interests of the clergy. I strongly believe that the opposite is the case. Effective safeguarding practice based on fair, transparent and agreed policies are a support and added protection for priests in their work. Where these are not in place, priests are far more vulnerable. Towards the end of my time in post, I believe that this critical fact was gaining recognition amongst many in the clergy who recognised that the National Board through its work could help to bring these policies into being and have them accepted across the Church. Bad decision-making in safeguarding is not in the best interests of anyone involved and certainly not the wrongly accused priest.
The progress made in safeguarding in the Irish Church is territory hard won. It would be a matter of great regret and disappointment to me if it was lost through lessons from the past not being learned. A strong, well resourced, and properly supported National Board is an essential part of the recovery process for the Church as a whole. If there is a move away from a single, one Church strategy, to the adoption of each individual Church authority meeting its own needs independently, that progress will be lost. The large and rich Church authorities may prosper but the small and the poor will not. I cannot see this as an attractive prospect if you consider the position of the vulnerable child and take a Church wide view.
It has sometimes been said that history repeats itself through time. When you consider the experiences that the Irish Catholic Church has had in recent years, I would assert that the best way to bring a lie to this statement is to learn the lessons of the past. The Church needs a strong, effective National Board that has the resources and support that are required for it to fulfil its remit. There is no viable alternative.

Ian Elliott is an Independent Consultant for Safeguarding of Children.
Website: www.ianelliottsafeguarding.com

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