By Susan Gately - 15 October, 2016
There can be no complacency regarding safeguarding in the Catholic Church, the Primate of All Ireland told delegates at a safeguarding conference which began on Thursday night, and which for the first time is considering the pastoral care of not only the victims but also the perpetrators of child abuse.
Safeguarding is a work of mercy, Archbishop Eamon Martin told over 200 delegates at the National Child Safeguarding Conference in Tullamore, County Offaly. Pope Francis encourages the Church to meet with victims and their loved ones, to listen to those who have suffered so greatly and to ask their forgiveness, he said.
This essential work is not easy for victims and survivors. “I have at times failed to realise how easily my own words and approach can unintentionally come across as hurtful or defensive to those who have been betrayed and let down by Church leaders or other personnel in the past.”
He went on to say, “I am humbled by the resilience and fortitude of those who come forward to share their painful memories. Responding to survivors is particularly challenging and sensitive when it comes to issues of redress and compensation.” These issues also need to be approached with openness, respecting the right to justice for survivors, respondents and all concerned.
Turning to care for those accused of abuse, Archbishop Martin said the work of mercy “compels us to reflect on the impact of accusations on those accused, on their family members and their communities.”
For those falsely accused, it can be very difficult for them to overcome the mistrust and suspicion that sometimes accompanies lengthy criminal, civil and canonical processes. He admitted that “Church authorities must remain open to constructive criticism about the implementation of our procedures.”
Regarding those found guilty of child abuse, he reiterated the words of Pope Benedict XVI: “Submit yourselves to the demands of justice, but do not despair of God’s mercy.”
“The Church’s response to those found guilty is one of the most delicate and controversial issues in safeguarding. In a society which demonises and clamours for permanent exclusion of such offenders one wonders how to strike the balance between mercy and justice, seeking redemption for the offender while always being careful not to compound the lifelong trauma of survivors.
“Whilst we must be mindful of the view that when offenders are ostracised and cut off from support there is a greater danger of re-offending, it is widely recognised now that those found guilty of sexual abuse of minors cannot minister again as priests.”
He acknowledged the work of the Church’s ‘Towards Healing’ initiative. This initiative has provided more than 150,000 face-to-face counselling sessions and taken nearly 120,000 helpline calls in the last five years. He also referred to the ‘Towards Peace’ initiative, which is a spiritual support service for survivors who wish to avail of it.
“We must always remember that abuse not only damages lives, past and present, but it is also, as Pope Francis has said, ‘toxic’ to faith and hope in God.” It is no wonder that many survivors of abuse have lost a sense of belonging to the Church, he added.
He urged delegates to remain alert to “potential risk situations here in Ireland with our increased rates of homelessness, forced home repossessions and alarming levels of violence in the home.”
Referring to the new challenges presented by social media and easily accessible pornography, Archbishop Martin said that safeguarding remained “an essential outreach of mercy towards the marginalised, the neglected and those most at risk.”
“You are at the vanguard of this important work of mercy, witnessing prophetically from within the Church to the need for society always to be on the alert for danger and exploitation,” he told the audience, which included representatives from all areas of child safeguarding within the Catholic Church and included archbishops, bishops, liaison persons, parish representatives and those tasked with safeguarding in religious orders.
Archbishop Martin announced that there will be a dedicated day of prayer in Ireland for the survivors of abuse on the First Friday of Lent in 2017. Among those addressing the conference on Friday were columnist Breda O’Brien and Pauline, who shared her own experience as a survivor of abuse.