By Kiply Lukan Yaworski, Catholic Saskatoon News
Since launching a Safeguarding Action Plan last year, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon has continued to move forward with commitments related to protecting the vulnerable and responding to allegations of abuse by clergy or lay employees.
Advancing the “Safer Church, Stronger Communities” plan announced in March 2020 is a priority for Bishop Mark Hagemoen, and for the 10-member diocesan Safeguarding Committee, chaired by Brenda FitzGerald.
“It is my goal to hold the bar very high in working to ensure that all our churches are safe and respectful communities,” says Bishop Hagemoen.
The 20 commitments in the diocesan Safeguarding Action Plan (https://rcdos.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Safer-church.pdf ) include items related to outreach and healing, to processes of reporting and addressing allegations of serious misconduct and sexual abuse, to policies and training in the diocese, and to expanding safeguarding culture.
Safeguarding Action Plan
Since the plan was announced, one particular commitment (#8) to undertake a Historical Case Review has moved forward in spite of challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic, says the bishop.
“The Historical Case Review process has been underway, independent of the bishop’s office,” says Hagemoen. “I will not have any details to share until the process is complete and a report is provided – hopefully later this spring.”
This Historical Case Review process includes a review of any historical cases involving the abuse of minors and vulnerable adults by clergy or lay employees in the diocese since the diocese was formed in 1933, notes Brenda FitzGerald, Safeguarding Committee chair.
“The goal is to evaluate if past historical decisions were appropriate, and also what we can learn for future situations if and when they arise. Because this process has not yet concluded, we do not yet know what the content of the report will be, including whether or not there will be names reported,” says FitzGerald.
In another Safeguarding Action Plan commitment (#12), the diocese has stated: “We commit to publicly identifying the names of clergy and church employees who have been found guilty of sexual abuse or other serious misconduct in a court of law or through the diocese’s own safeguarding investigative process, subject to privacy laws.”
“This particular action plan item reflects the diocese’s strong commitment to transparency,” says FitzGerald, noting media interest around the question of releasing names of any clergy or church employees found guilty of sexual abuse or other serious misconduct – not just in a court of law, but through the diocese’s own internal investigation process.
“At the same time, like any organization, the diocese is subject to privacy and defamation laws in our province.”
Safeguarding commitments related to policies and training have also moved forward in the past year, FitzGerald notes.
Continuing education and orientation
Ongoing training efforts include a new one-day “continuing education and orientation day” developed for clergy, staff and volunteers that will be offered with a choice of day – either April 7 or April 8 — available either online or in-person with COVID-19 rules in place.
“Ongoing safeguarding training is part of our commitment in terms of our Safer Church Stronger Communities action plan. Under those commitments, clergy, employees and volunteers who interact with children and vulnerable adults will receive regular and up-to-date training regarding safeguarding and the features of our diocesan Covenant of Care safeguarding policies,” FitzGerald describes.
The latest session will incorporate an up-to-date video program that reviews the basics of safeguarding, strategies to identify potential abuse, steps for ensuring safety for those who are vulnerable, and establishing boundaries. “What is exciting is that everyone will be receiving the same type of education, and that it will be both a re-affirmation or a renewal for people who have seen similar kind of material before, and an orientation for those who are new.”
Such training must be continually reinforced and offered, FitzGerald says, stressing that education on safeguarding cannot be a “one-time event.”
Outreach and healing
Another major “pillar” of the diocesan Safeguarding Action Plan is outreach and healing, notes FitzGerald.
“We are firmly committed to a safe and respectful and compassionate intake process,” she says. “When victims come forward, it is really important to have a quality intake process and to journey compassionately with that person through the process.”
The diocese now has two Intake Officers who respond to anyone coming forward with an allegation of misconduct or serious abuse – a lay woman with a background in counselling and support and a member of the clergy. (Find their contact information at https://rcdos.ca/our-diocese/safe-environment/to-report-abuse/ )
“We commit to really listening to those who identify as victims of serious abuse or serious misconduct by others in the Church. We will act in a timely manner on allegations, and it will not be with judgment, but rather with empathy and integrity. It will include providing support through competent and trustworthy caregivers,” describes FitzGerald. “We want a process that treats a person with the utmost carer and compassion as they come forward. That is a very important commitment.”
“We commit to cooperation in prosecuting those committing crimes of sexual abuse, while also committing to a strategy of treatment for perpetrators,” she says.
FitzGerald added that if a member of clergy is found guilty by a court of law or through the diocese’s own investigations, they do not continue to work in ministry and are not transferred to other parishes or dioceses. “We are concerned about safeguarding of our faith community not only in our diocese, but everywhere.”
FitzGerald’s personal commitment to safeguarding people from sexual abuse and misconduct in the Church stems from her own background.
“I grew up a street away from Mount Cashel (in Newfoundland), which was the ‘ground zero’ of child sexual abuse in North America,” she says.
“This issue is important to me because I grew up in the church in a province and at a time when there was not openness and transparency with respect to dealing with allegations of child sexual abuse, where things were kept hidden, where actions taken were not appropriate. I decided that I was going to put my head where my heart was and to work to make things different,” she says of her involvement in the Safeguarding Committee.
“To me what is really important is that we are working to make sure that what happened in the past – across too many places – does not continue to happen.”
FitzGerald concludes: “The work we are doing in this diocese is most importantly about being victim-centred in our approach to dealing with allegations of misconduct or abuse.”