Putting Children First

On Sunday 13th September we celebrate Child Protection Sunday. The theme of this year’s celebration is “putting children first.” This annual celebration of our children is a reminder to all of us to prioritise the safety and wellbeing of children in every aspect of church and community life. This requires a Diocesan-wide effort, even with the restrictions which Covid-19 has imposed upon us. Our efforts to protect children and vulnerable adults in our parishes and communities require constant commitment. Safeguarding is the responsibility of every adult. We can never say we have arrived. We can never say we have finally got this right.

In our Sandhurst Diocese we have a group called the Professional Standards Committee which consists of a number of professional people committed to safeguarding children and vulnerable adults. The Committee meets several times a year and advises the Bishop on safeguarding matters. As well, our Diocese has a dedicated Child Safety Officer whose task is to assist parishes in safeguarding children and vulnerable adults. The Diocese has now completed a substantial review of its primary Policy on safeguarding issues and practices for all parishes and agencies in the Diocese.

Later this year, probably October/November, a substantial audit of the Diocese will be undertaken by a group called Catholic Professional Standards Limited (CPSL). This group will undertake a comprehensive audit of the safeguarding policies and practices of the Diocese, measured against the seven Child Safe Standards of the Victorian Government and the ten standards of the National Catholic Safeguarding Standards. This report will be a public document, available on the CPSL website.

The protection of children and vulnerable adults, of course, is not simply a Diocesan matter but very much a priority and commitment of every local Catholic parish and agency in the Diocese. In each Church a parishioner can find a series of posters and policy statements relating to safeguarding issues on the local level. Each parish has a Safeguarding Committee who work with the local Parish Priest. The Child Safety Officer works with each of these parish committees. The message is clear: we are all responsible for our precious children and the vulnerable adults in our midst.

The recent Royal Commission laid bare the appalling level of abuse, of cover up and neglected responsibilities in the Australian Catholic Church. As submissions to the Plenary Council have also made clear, many people feel hurt, angry and betrayed. Voices are calling for greater accountability and transparency in Church life. Specifically, these voices call for responsibility on the part of Church leaders for those persons whose lives have been broken by abuse; for recognition of the hurt and betrayal felt by those wounded by abuse; and, recognition of the devastating trauma abuse has caused, not only for victims but for their wider families. The Sandhurst Diocese has a zero tolerance for child abuse.

As we celebrate our children it is clear what they need: safety, love, freedom from harm, joy, freedom to play, and safe environment. Children have the right to speak and to be heard. Children have the right to be empowered. What we want is for every child to reach their potential. What we want is to nurture, protect, inspire, and teach every child. Recently, in the course of my work in Catholic education, I came across a most engaging graphic of how all these agencies and groups of Catholic education can support the child as the centre of all that we do: the agencies and groups are depicted as a hand in which the child rests as the key focus of all this endeavour. Let us keep all our precious children happy and safe!

Fr Brian Boyle.