Benedict’s UK shows how far Church has come in dealing with abuse

  • September 30, 2010
It used to be the only news. Apparently it is now old news. But there was something new when Pope Benedict XVI visited Britain.

The issue is sexual abuse by priests. In the run up to the papal visit to the United States in April 2008, it dominated the commentary. What would the Pope do? What would the Pope say? The Holy Father addressed the issue forthrightly on the plane en route, spoke about it a half dozen times in his formal addresses, and then met with a group of victims in a private, prayerful and emotional meeting. He did the same thing in Australia later that summer. His approach was well received by most.

But not all, as those who see the sexual abuse scandal principally as a stick with which to beat the Catholic Church regard any resolution of the crisis as something to be feared. So even before Benedict arrived in Britain, agitators of various kinds said that if he spoke forthrightly about sexual abuse, and if he met with victims — well, that wouldn’t mean anything. What was hotly demanded two years ago is now already old hat.

So what Benedict actually did in Britain regarding sexual abuse got fleeting attention, which likely doesn’t bother the Holy Father too much, with an eye on justice and healing, not favourable headlines in tomorrow’s papers. He spoke several times of the Church’s sorrow and shame and met again with victims. But then he did something new — he had a meeting with “child safeguarders” — those who work for the protection of children in Church programs. We call it “safe environment” here, referring to that set of protocols for reporting accusations and preventative measures — volunteer screening, background checks, best practices for child supervision. Throughout Britain, as well as in Canada and the United States, every diocese has measures of this sort in place.

“I am glad to have the opportunity to greet you, who represent the many professionals and volunteers responsible for child protection in Church environments,” the Holy Father said. “Your work, carried out within the framework of the recommendations made in the first instance by the Nolan Report and subsequently by the Cumberlege Commission, has made a vital contribution to the promotion of safe environments for young people. It helps to ensure that the preventative measures put in place are effective, that they are maintained with vigilance and that any allegations of abuse are dealt with swiftly and justly.

“It is deplorable that, in such marked contrast to the Church’s long tradition of care for them, children have suffered abuse and mistreatment at the hands of some priests and religious,” Benedict continued. “We have all become much more aware of the need to safeguard children, and you are an important part of the Church’s broad-ranging response to the problem. While there are never grounds for complacency, credit should be given where it is due: the efforts of the Church in this country and elsewhere, especially in the last 10 years, to guarantee the safety of children and young people and to show them every respect as they grow to maturity, should be acknowledged.”

Credit should be given where it is due. Benedict is asking for the truth to be told about the sexual abuse crisis. Part of that truth is that the last generation has seen a massive change in how the Catholic Church handles both reporting and prevention. The last “10 years” that Benedict spoke about corresponds to two major independent commissions (“Nolan” and “Cumberlege”) set up by the bishops of England and Wales to advise on procedures and protocols for accusations of abuse and prevention of same.

The American bishops put in place a very tough regime, including subjecting themselves to annual audits, in 2002. Canadian bishops began even 10 years earlier, with the 1992 report “From Pain to Hope.”

Such measures are never perfect, and therefore there are periodic reviews and updating. In my home archdiocese of Kingston, the archbishop promulgated new regulations this past spring. The archdiocese of Toronto is doing the same this fall.

Consequently, it can be argued that now the safest place for a child is in a Catholic youth environment — safer than public schools, athletic programs or as is sadly the case, even the family home itself.

The ugly truth of what happened, for the most part, more than 30 years ago should not be obscured or denied. But the truth of what is happening today should also be told. That Benedict decided to do so on a high-profile papal visit indicates a welcome shift in the discussion about sexual abuse in the Church. Credit should indeed be given where it is due.

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