By Fr Joshan Rodrigues.
A significant step forward was taken by the Catholic Church in India with regards to the protection of minors and vulnerable persons, with the inauguration of the National Safeguarding Centre on the 8th of September 2021, the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The establishment of the Centre is an initiative of His Eminence Cardinal Oswald Gracias, who is President of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India, and a member of the Task Force appointed by the Holy Father to supervise implementation of the new Law promulgated by Pope Francis concerning sexual abuse. The new law was set down in a Motu Proprio issued on the 7th of May, 2019, titled “Vos Estis Lux Mundi” – You are the Light of the World.
The Centre was christened as the ‘St Joseph Safeguarding Centre’ and is located at Archbishop’s House Extension in the Eucharistic Congress Building at Colaba, Mumbai. The Vision of this office which comes under the aegis of the CBCI is to create and promote a safe culture of safeguarding and care in Church-run institutions. The Mission of the Centre is four-fold – “Sensitisation, Awareness, Prevention and Reconciliation”.
Cardinal Gracias inaugurated and blessed the new Centre on the morning of Sept. 8 in the presence of members of the Board of the Centre and the Archdiocesan Curia. The ribbon-cutting ceremony was followed by a Prayer Service. Reflecting on the significance of the auspicious day on which the Centre was being inaugurated, Cardinal Gracias said that Mary was a blessing to everyone since she brought Jesus to us. Mary was herself in a state of vulnerability at the moment of her own conception and later when she conceived and gave birth to Our Lord. But the frailty of humankind was overshadowed by the protection of God.
“Today we also celebrate ‘Day of the Girl Child’”, His Eminence said, “and we all are well aware of the atrocities that the girl child has to face in India and around the world. It is therefore important that we have a Centre that will promote Family life and work towards supporting the girl child and vulnerable women and persons.” The Centre is a desire of the Church, of the Holy Father, and this Centre is just one of two in Asia, the other being in the Philippines. “We pray for the success of this Centre; that much good is done for the Church, for girls, for vulnerable persons and for the whole of society. I pray that this Centre becomes an inspiration and guiding light not just for the Church, but for the whole of society”, His Eminence concluded.
Among those present were Sr Arina Gonsalves, of the congregation of Religious of Jesus and Mary, who is a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors since 2018. She has been a member of the Internal Enquiry Committee in the Archdiocese of Bombay since 2016 and will serve as Executive Secretary of the National Safeguarding Office. Fr Lester Vaz, Associate Judicial Vicar of the Bombay Metropolitan Tribunal, is the Director of the Centre. Members of the Board of St Joseph Safeguarding Centre who were present were Fr Stephen Fernandes, noted Moral Theologian and Secretary, CBCI Office for Justice, Peace and Development (JPD); Mr Ronnie Mendonca, former Mumbai Police Commissioner; Ms Flavia Agnes, noted activist and women’s rights lawyer. Other members of the Safeguarding Centre include Dr Myriam Wiljens, Canonist and member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors; Fr Konrad Noronha SJ, Jnana Deepa Vidhyapeeth, Pune; Fr Godfrey D’Sa SDB, Founder Director of Prafulta Centre for Psychological Wellness and Dr Rouen Mascarenhas, a noted Pediatrician.
Speaking about the role that this National Office is expected to play in promoting safeguarding efforts in the Church, Sr Arina said that the first and foremost objective would be training of canonists in the new procedures and laws as set down in Vos Estis Lux Mundi, and training of teachers and lay persons working in catholic schools and institutions. Working towards healing and reconciliation will also be an important part of the Centre’s mission. The National centre will assist dioceses across India in setting up their own diocesan centres and will act as a nodal point to guide and inform the Church in India on the matter of safeguarding and protection. Sr Arina mentioned that the Church has taken significant steps in the last few years to ensure a safe environment for minors and vulnerable persons in church institutions, and that her own work has been inspired and informed by safeguarding efforts, reforms and policies established in local churches around the world and by her interaction with other members of the Pontifical Commission.