Building a safeguarding culture within the church community

Sr. Nancy Brown of the Sisters of Charity speaks at Priests' Study Days for clergy of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon.

By Sr. Nancy Brown, SC

From a presentation Nov. 5, 2019 at Priests’ Study Days, Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon

In 1859, Charles Dickens wrote in A Tale of Two Cities, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…”

How would you describe our world today?

Greta Thunberg and some scientists today are warning us that we have limited time to clean up our act with regard to the planet. Perhaps the same is true for the church – now is the moment for transforming any trace of violent behavior through compassion. The scandal of clerical abuse calls into question the credibility and relevance of the church. Now is the moment to act with wisdom, courage and fortitude to bring about transformation within the church structures and community.

Creating a safeguarding culture within the church community: SLIDES

The 2018 CCCB document, Protecting Minors from Sexual Abuse, acknowledges that the clergy abuse scandal has become a stumbling block for many and that the church must regain its credibility by examining its own self-understanding. A shift towards greater responsibility, accountability and transparency is essential. Leadership needs to move beyond a reactive attitude to one that is proactive and pre-emptive. Safe environment policies need immediate implementation, but for the church to be relevant in today’s world more needs to be done.

What will it take to create a culture of safe environment within the church today in a world dominated by violence, fear and hatred?

United Nations documents reveal that every year, at least one billion children (half of the world’s children) experience violence. Three in every four children under the age of 5 experience violent discipline at the hands of caregivers. In contrast to this, our gospel calls us to be compassionate as our God is compassionate. Jesus demonstrated a special love for children, challenging the disciples to let the children come to him, exhorting them to become like little children and warning them not to harm, not to be a stumbling block to their faith.

Can the church community show leadership at this critical time? How can the church community use the energies of love to unite what is divided, to care for the broken, to resist any unjust power or control and to courageous build a more welcoming, hospitable church community? With greater alignment of personal behaviors, structures and polices with the mission of Jesus, cultural transformation will happen.

There are five areas within the church culture that need immediate attention:

  1. justice for all, especially those who have been harmed,
  2. transparency and openness,
  3. community of equals,
  4. non-violent stance and
  5. compassionate care.

The church community is called to reach out to the survivors and their families to demonstrate a sincere commitment for their spiritual and emotional well being, possibly including appropriate referrals to counselling, spiritual assistance, support groups etc. As the community owns its part in the harm done to survivors, survivors need to be assured that they are not responsible for the sexual abuse that was done to them. Many survivors live for years believing that they were the cause of the abuse thus increasing their sense of shame and guilt.

Silence, cover ups, threats of secrecy have no place within the church community. Abuse is wrong but adding a level of secrecy is doubly wrong and causes further damage to the person. There is an extra layer of abuse when the perpetrator is a man of God, in a position of authority. Not only does the victim endure psychological and physical harm but one’s faith, spirituality, image of God and Church is destroyed, filling the victim with shame, confusion and loss of community.

Safeguarding within the church means welcoming and respecting the dignity of all persons and recognizing the common call to holiness. It calls for the elimination of all judgements, any racism or biases. Lumen Gentium reminds us that the mission of the church belongs to all by virtue of one’s baptism. A “no” to abuse within the church community means “no” to clericalism. Whatever the cause of clericalism, and however it is manifested, it needs to be replaced by a community of equals. Pope Francis, in the 7 Pillars of Priesthood, states that the authority of priesthood is not a manifestation of power but is a ministry of service, especially to the care and protection of the poorest, weakest, the least important and the most easily forgotten.

Safeguarding within the church means working toward the elimination of violence and cultivating a culture of peace and harmony. All violence needs to be eliminated since all forms of violence are inter-related, destroying the dignity of the human person, treating the person as a commodity to be used, abused and thrown away. Without an intervention, violence will increase in frequency and intensity. It is always an imbalance of power with tactics of manipulation inhibiting the victim from leaving the abusive relationship.

Violence begets violence. Most prostituted women were victims of child abuse. Many abused children will likely become a bully, an abuser or victim in other relationships. Pornography, (8 years old is the average age of introduction to pornogtaphy) leads to normalizing violence and harm to women. Men who watch pornography are more likely to become involved in prostitution and human trafficking. The cycle needs to be stopped.

The body of Christ has been broken by the scandal of clerical abuse. All members of the community have been affected by this grave injustice. During this time of intense pain and shame, all are called to show compassionate care, listening deeply to the pain, shame, anger, confusion, disbelief and questioning of faith. It is a time to listen unconditionally without judgement, rejecting all cover ups, revealing all secrets, calling perpetrators to accountability and walking with the survivors.

Behind every scar, there is a story. Perpetrators must always be held accountable for any abusive behavior, but their personal dignity respected with an offering of conversion and healing.

In the words of Henri Nouwen, compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.