Are children now safer in the church?
Lying behind this question is the deep desire of all of us to believe that, after all that has happened since 1994, the same level of danger cannot exist as existed in the last century. There is good reason to believe it must be so, given the work put in by the NBSCCC since 2007 – in drawing up clear guidelines for child safety, in auditing safeguarding practice in dioceses and religious orders and in training the personnel in every parish who now monitor this issue across the island.
It still gives us great concern, however, that the structural reforms needed to embed a culture of accountability at every level in the church have not yet emerged. In particular bishops are not yet accountable to their own people on administrative matters, which means that genuine transparency is seriously lacking also. In particular there is insufficient transparency in relation to the financing and management of the NBSCCC itself. The complaints in January 2014 of the founding CEO of the Board, Ian Elliott – that the board had been progressively starved of financial support over the previous four years and didn’t have the authority to investigate a diocese without an invitation – need a far more forthright response than has so far been forthcoming.
Mr Elliott’s publicised reservations about the thoroughness of the final report on the last investigation he was involved in – into the diocese of Down and Connor in 2013 – also give cause for great concern.
It is above all the culture of clericalism in the Catholic Church that endangers children. That culture creates an expectation on the part of clergy that lay people will defer to them in all church matters – and a reluctance on the part of lay people to resist, lest that resistance be interpreted as disloyalty.
We in VOTF fear the return of the culture of deference within the child protection system, and even in the NBSCCC. To reinforce the gains that have been made there simply must be structural change in the church – and representation of survivors of abuse on the NBSCCC itself. We cannot understand why this has not already happened, and fear for the safety of children if it does not happen soon.
Child protection cannot in the end be left to the Irish Bishops Conference. As things stand we cannot believe that the NBSCCC is truly independent of the influence of the bishops, who give every sign of wanting everyone to move on in the old clericalist daze of ‘lets’ leave it to the clergy’. It was that attitude above all that endangered children in the past – and, while it survives, the safety of all children in the church will remain a matter of great concern.
Structural change is needed in any case to allow us to address together all of the problems that now threaten the survival of the Catholic Church in Ireland. We are encouraged on all of these issues by the words of Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium:
” I dream of a ‘missionary option’, that is a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything so that the Church’s customs, way of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can suitably be channelled for evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.” (Evangelii Gaudium § 27)
There can be no ‘New Evangelisation in Ireland without a completely changed relationship between clergy – especially bishops – and people. It is time for the Irish Bishops Conference to commit itself to this – if it is truly concerned to build a church that is safe for all of its most vulnerable members.