Sr Stanislaus Kennedy on why now more than ever, in the aftermath of clerical sex abuse scandals, the Church must be the advocate of children.
The church has had a long tradition of caring for vulnerable children. Sadly, this tradition has been sullied by recent shocking revelations of abuse. The fact that some church people have misused their position and have caused devastating pain and grief to children in their care has hurt the church as well as the victims themselves. A natural reaction on the part of the church might be to hide its face and abandon its commitment to working on behalf of vulnerable children.
That might be an instinctive reaction, but it is not the correct one. What we need to do now as church is to take responsibility for damage done, to see that justice is done with truth, honesty and transparency, and to work unrelentingly to restore the dignity of people who have been hurt by child abuse at the hands of church people.
We must also seek new ways in which we, as church, can meet our commitment to vulnerable children. Children cannot wait for society or the church to get its act together – they continue to grow and develop while adults argue and debate. If we do not provide them with conditions for positive growth and development, we condemn them to lives of misery, crime, drugs and despair. That is why we as church need to continue to advocate for and work on behalf of vulnerable children.
Abuse is not and never has been confined to children in institutions. It has always happened, it is still happening, and no amount of uncovering of past institutional abuses will change that. Our most vulnerable children today continue to suffer emotional and physical deprivation. They are marginalised and neglected, and some of them experience gross physical and sexual abuse. By early adolescence a sizeable proportion of these children turn to alcohol, drugs and petty crime; by late adolescence they are appearing and reappearing before the courts. It is often only then that we hear about them, but we hear very little about the journey that led them to the courtroom.
Break the cycle of poverty
It is no accident that these children come from poor families, poor homes and poor neighbourhoods. As church, we should be calling for economic and social policies that radically restructure society and wipe out gross inequalities. We should be calling for child income supports to be put in place as the central strategy to address child poverty. Child benefit needs to be substantially increased as a universal payment and as a main form of income support for parents and their children, and it should be taxed to offset costs and to ensure that low-income families benefit most.
As church, we should call for a radical investment in disadvantaged areas to ensure that everything possible is done to help people in these areas to live and grow to their full potential as citizens. We also need to call for a fundamental reorientation of children’s education, health, housing and welfare services to ensure that all children are accorded their rights in these areas. We need especially to ensure measures are brought in to enable those who are poorest to catch up on the others and to break the cycle of poverty that blights so many families and so many children, and that rolls on from one generation to the next.
Caring for the most vulnerable children
The most vulnerable children of all are those who cannot be cared for in their own homes and are placed in the care of the State. These are the ones who most often end up homeless, unemployed, before the courts, and who go on to have children of their own who grow up in poverty and deprivation. We need a child-care service that, first of all, recognises the child as part of a family, does everything possible to prevent children having to be placed in the care of the State, and ensures that this only happens in very grave circumstances.
For those children for whom State care is the only option, we need a continuum of child care that includes foster care, residential care, emergency, short-term, transitional, long-term and therapeutic care, and, for that small number of the most damaged children who need them, high-support units, so that the appropriate type of care can be chosen to meet the needs of each child, while maintaining close links with their family of origin.
Restore young people’s self-esteem
All these types of care need to be designed in a way that restores young people’s sense of self-esteem, respect, justice and responsibility, enabling them to take pride in themselves and empowering them to live as full, responsible citizens.
Such a child-care service needs to be resourced in a way that ensures that children have the security, safety, respect and dignity that is their right. This will require good planning and continuous review and evaluation. A continuum of care will not come cheaply but we cannot afford not to have it if we are to treat all the children of the nation equally and if we are to ensure that future generations are spared the uncovering of abuses that this generation has had to witness.
Investment in child care
Residential child care in Ireland has suffered from fragmentation of services, lack of continuity, and lack of investment. The result is we have failed to build up a body of knowledge, expertise or tradition on residential child care in this country. One way the church can make a major contribution to the protection and care of vulnerable children in Ireland today is by a particular form of radical investment in child care.
I propose that the church provides the resources for a foundation or trust fund for the specific purposes of establishing an educational institute of knowledge and expertise that will provide models of good practice in child care, through education, research and action, and that will build up the intellectual and skills capacity of residential child-care staff.
The proposed educational institute would draw on expertise from abroad, particularly Europe, Canada, the US and Australia, where good models of practice exist. The institute could send people from Ireland abroad, and invite people from abroad to Ireland for extended periods of time to build up knowledge and experience. In time, this institute has the potential to be known as a centre of excellence for its expertise and knowledge, providing training, education, research and support for residential child care in Ireland with built-in systems of monitoring and evaluation.
by Sr Stanislaus Kennedy
This article first appeared in Reality, a magazine of the Irish Redemptorists.