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Tomorrow sees the re-convening of bishops in Rome to consider marriage, divorce and sexuality. Last year’s meeting brought bitter disagreements out into the open and the rows have continued to simmer ever since
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It is ten years since the Church began reporting annually on allegations of abuse received by the Catholic Church in England and Wales and on standards of safeguarding. This year’s report was published this week and shows how far we have moved. The first year, 2004, was two years after Lord Nolan's report that laid out recommendations and a pathway for the Church to follow to become more robust and consistent in dealing with allegations implementing safeguarding protocols. The Cumberlege Review of 2007 reviewed the progress since the Nolan Report and made further recommendations to the bishops of England and Wales, which were accepted in their entirety. This included the setting up of an independent commission which would always be chaired by a layperson. Hence the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission (NCSC) , of which I am chairman.
Ten years on, we have a national structure – the NCSC's responsibility for strategy and auditing the quality of safeguarding in dioceses through its procedures and guidelines – and agreed procedures for all dioceses and religious congregations to observe. This includes having clear criteria for the appointment of diocesan safeguarding co-ordinators and chairmen or women of diocesan commissions.
While we have rightly learned from the secular world about best practice, it is important to recognise that there is a theological heart to safeguarding and that it is integral to ministry. St John XXIII likened the Church to family, friends and neighbours gathered around a village fountain in Italy; all were welcome and there was a care and concern for each individual.
This vision was shattered by the abuse scandal, affecting not only victims and survivors but others who had their idealised perception of the Church and the priesthood demolished by such criminal behaviour. The Church has apologised for getting things so wrong in the past but in one sense it can never apologise enough, given the damage to the lives of individual victims and survivors.
That is why we have been so determined in sustaining procedures that reflect best practice, including automatically referring any allegations to the authorities. Across the global Church, the Church in England and Wales is held up as a model of good practice in this area.
A significant development we mention in this year’s report has been the majority of religious congregations aligning themselves with diocesan safeguarding commissions to ensure that people who make an allegation have a consistent experience. We will be setting up an advisory group to ensure the commission is engaging with survivors in the way most appropriate to their needs – it is wrong to assume every survivor wants counselling. A pilot project in the diocese of Hallam that could be rolled out nationally has been exploring how the Church can respond to the varied needs of victims and survivors when they come forward with an allegation.
In partnership with training providers EduCare, we are developing an e-learning programme on raising awareness about safeguarding that will be available to anyone in the Church in England and Wales. We are talking with the NSPCC about how we can improve our auditing process.
Our partnerships with other agencies will enable the Church to be less insular and open to the best practice elsewhere, and will enable us to share our experience and expertise. The risk of abuse is never going to go away. The protection of children, young people and vulnerable adults must remain at the heart of our ministry in the family life of the Church.
Danny Sullivan is Chairman of the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission for England and Wales