Card. O’ Malley: Verification of Safeguarding policies key factor of accountability

On Thursday November 4, Tutela Minorum President Cardinal Sean O’ Malley addressed participants in a study convention presenting the results of Project SAFE. Sponsored by the European Union the project focused on promoting child safeguarding in three Italian associations that work specifically with children, adolescents and vulnerable adults: The Comunità Papa Giovanni XXIII, Azione Cattolica and Centro Sportivo Italiano. Below the full text of the Cardinal’s address, translated from the original Italian.

Good Afternoon, I am Cardinal Sean O’Malley, Archbishop of Boston and President and a Member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. I am honored to speak with you today at the concluding Seminar of the European Project “SAFE – Educating and Welcoming in Safe Environments.”
As you gather for consultations on this important this initiative, allow me to express my gratitude for the sponsorship provided by Comunità Papa Giovanni XXIII, L’Azione Cattolica, the Centro Sportivo Italiano and The Sociology Department of Bologna University through its Center for Interdisciplinary Research into Victims and Safety (CIRVIS). Your efforts are a gift and blessing for all of us and for those who will be served by the SAFE program.
A Pastoral Conversion
It is encouraging that SAFE seeks to provide a pathway for minors and vulnerable adults to be protected from sexual abuse or any coercion or manipulation. From the beginning of his ministry, Pope Francis has emphasized
the importance of pastoral conversion that leads to evangelization that can bring the hope of the Gospel message to all people. The Holy Father reminds us of the teaching of Pope Paul VI, who called for renewal on the part of each person and the entire Church. Conversion at both levels is essential to Pope Francis’ call for a “missionary transformation” of the Church.
Pastoral conversion is important as we focus our efforts on renewing the Church in the face of sexual abuse. We must work for change in all aspects of the life of the Church, combatting abuse wherever it has occurred regardless of the status or office of the person who committed the crime. “It is not possible to make peace with injustice.” wrote Don Oreste Benzi, founder of Communità Giovanni XXIII almost 40 years agoi. We must hear the survivors of abuse when they call for healing and justice. We cannot turn away from or deny the reality of abuse when it occurs in our homes, our communities or our associations. If we fail to directly address abuse wherever we find it then we share in the responsibility for the harm and damage it inflicts upon innocent people.
With the awareness that we cannot be indifferent to the suffering of our brothers and sisters, Don Oreste has called for communal witness, in what he called ‘vital worlds’. Your communities have grown throughout Italy and beyond, embracing the marginalized people in our society, many of them children and vulnerable adults, and walking beside them in their journey.
Through the lived experience of “being together”, your communities seek to be a visible expression of Christian life that can contribute to social wellbeing and be a leaven for change.
I am grateful that together with Azione Cattolica and Centro Sportivo Italiano, you have sought to inspire change in how the Church and society protect our children and young people from abuse. Your collaboration reaches to almost every area of the lives of children and young people today; in their homes, schools, recreational activities and sporting associations. In some countries, there is a perception that children are not at risk in community oranizations and recreational groups. This can lead to false sense of security that unintentionally leaves children and young people at risk of abuse. It is of great importance that all activites that involve children implement and adhere to a coordinated program of protection and safeguarding. Working together we can provide a more secure environment in which children can grow and flourish.
A Program for Change
The Holy Father created the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors in 2014 as an instrument for change in how the Church as best possible prevents the sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable adults. That change needs to be rooted not only in the Gospel but also in the fundamental principles of safeguarding as established by the international community and enshrined in the UN Convention of the Rights of the Childii .
The abuse crisis that continues to unfold across the global Church makes clear that there is much work to be done to assure basic safeguarding standards, such as accessible, transparent reporting systems, credentialed protection polices and verified implementation. Also, and too often tragically, we did not listen to survivors when they shared with us the crimes and sins of the assaults they had been subjected
to. When we became fully aware of the damage the abuse caused young people and vulnerable adults, and having failed to protect them from that harm, we had to turn to civil authorities for help. Our Commission was established in response to that situation, bringing together experts in the safeguarding from all five continents. The Commission members recognized that the Churches’ mission in all its forms, to at least some degree involves children and vulnerable people.
The first task undertaken by the Commission was to draft a framework for a policy that could be used as a model for safeguarding guidelines and adapted to the circumstances of the Church throughout the world. The template for safeguarding guidelines has been shared with the leadership of conferences of bishops and religious superiors, lay associations and ecclesial movements throughout the world, to advance protection standards in the life of the universal Church. It is heartening to see the Commission recommendations among the sources for the safeguarding policy of the Communità Papa Giovanni XXIII, along with the guidelines of the Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life. I look forward to sharing the findings of project SAFE with the members of the Commission, as we seek to update our recommendations, to reflect the progress and learnings that have been made over the past six years.
Likewise, it is good to learn that the Centro Sportivo Italiana and Azione Cattolica Italiana are in the process of formulating safeguarding policies and procedures inspired by their involvement in project SAFE. The participation of Centro and Azione is particularly encouraging because of your presence and activity among teenagers and young adults in Italy.
Allow me now to offer a few suggestions from our work on the Pontifical Commission, as you continue your formational journey
together. Firstly, even the most stringent protection policies, educational programs and victims’ assistance services are fruitless if there is no regular verification of their implementation and efficacy. Regular third party verification of the standards that you establish must become part of your associations’ plans to improve safeguarding services over time. There is no room for complacency in protecting children from abuse, we cannot be led into thinking that once a policy is approved our work has been done. Regular audits of our policies are also a key factor in communicating accountability in an open and transparent way.
Secondly, allow me to suggest another partner for your work in support of safeguarding: the men and women who –as children and young adolescents – suffered so terribly when protection standards failed, or far too often were non-existent. They are our privileged partners on our journey of conversion to a culture of safeguarding.
Being aware of where the risk of abuse lies in communities, be it the parish or the school or the sports club, is the first step towards preventing abuse. In this, however, the burden is quite often on the victim of the abuse to speak up. Many persons who were abused when they were youth take years, even decades, to come forward. Every survivor’s journey is different. In some dioceses it has been noted that when the Church invites survivors or their loved ones to attend confidential meetings and listening sessions, few if any persons respond, leading the leadership to conclude that there have been few if any occurrences of abuse in their diocese. Comprehensive historical research confirms what we have come to know through experience; there are very few if any places where the tragedy of sexual abuse has not occurred in the life of the Church. We need to create a culture within our organizations that believes a survivor’s testimony, that mitigates silence born of fear or delays in addressing situations that put children and vulnerable adults at risk. We must hold protection and safety as the highest priority.
Safeguarding Beyond Covid 19, a Cultural Change
The social distancing measures imposed by the global pandemic and the virtual reality that has superimposed itself onto young people’s everyday reality. For the past two years, children’s experiences of schools and social interaction has been far removed from our experiences. The ease with which we could gather with family and friends, for planned activities or spontaneously, has not been part of their daily life,
We know that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a socio-economic crisis that has increased the inequalities of vulnerable children. United Nations research on the sale and sexual exploitation of children has noted that the pandemic has changed the perpetrators activities, with the crimes increasingly committed for dissemination online. Also, a recent Save the Children report on the hidden impact of the Covid -19 crisis revealed that one third of households had a child or caregiver reporting violence. The means for reporting abuse must be publicized and accessible, not only in your associations, but now more than ever, online. Your safeguarding efforts must be readily available in the digital world, there is an ongoing exponential growth in peer-on-peer abuse. We must promote a culture in which children, young people and their families know they can speak out, know who they can speak to and that when they do, they will be heard and – where there is a risk of abuse – action will be taken.
Understandable and readily accessible social media and data protection policies are an important component for mitigating the risk of sexual abuse. We must also, at the same time, promote a culture of safeguarding, to ensure that the children and adolescents in your care and their parents or guardians are educated to understand the purpose of these policies and how to implement them. We must establish organizational environments where young people and their parents can ask difficult questions with confidence that they will be heard and taken seriously. This is essential for any association in the Church or wider society that works with children or vulnerable adults.
I encourage you to continue to do everything in your power to ensure that your associations are places of trust, encounter, welcome and joy. This is how we can continue to follow the call given us in Lumen Gentium, to be “a sign and instrument of communion with God and of the unity of the entire human race”. Together, let us continue the essential work of safeguarding the joy of young people and vulnerable adults, a sacred responsibility for which we cannot fail.