Child protection: ‘What we have learned’

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Karen Larkman Ministerial Integrity and Safeguarding Office Sydney archdiocese Child Protection Week
Karen Larkman, director of the Ministerial Integrity and Safeguarding Office for the Sydney archdiocese.

If there’s one issue the Catholic Church in Australia is more sensitive about than any other, it’s the abuse of children and minors which occurred within its ranks over decades. This has produced a crisis greater than anything the Church has faced in its history in this country.

Whether abuse occurred is not at issue. While the settings varied – including parishes, schools and other Catholic institutions – the response over decades was generally abysmal, often informed by a variety of motives which ranged from falling in tow with then-fashionable opinions about handling abusers to effectively running silent (therefore refusing justice to victims) in order to avoid embarrassing the reputation of the Church.

Over the last 20 years the blowtorch of media attention and now an ongoing Royal Commission have each played their part in changing how the Church responds to this issue, helping to usher in fundamental changes including the conscious creation of a growing culture of vigilance and proper procedures for dealing with allegations – and delivering justice to victims.

Paradoxically, although the Church lives with the painful glare of the public spotlight seemingly fixed largely on it, it’s the Church that has done more than almost any other organisation to redress its record.

Statistics from the report of the federal government’s Institute of Health and Welfare on child protection in Australia for the 12 month period covering 2011-2012, by comparison, showed that 12 per cent of the substantiated notifications of abuse across in Australia were for abuse of a sexual nature – 5828 Australian children in one year alone. The total number of substantiated cases of abuse were over 48,000.

However, the appointment of Karen Larkman in November 2015 as Director of the Archdiocese of Sydney’s Ministerial Integrity and Safeguarding Office – a newly created office and a first for the archdiocese – signalled how seriously the lesson has been learned.

Her office, regarded as a key bulwark in the archdiocese’s push to reform church culture and procedure, was the result of a review of archdiocesan policies on safeguarding and protection of minors instituted by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP, one of the first measures he enacted after his appointment as Archbishop.

A former social worker with over 25 years experience working in the fields of child protection as a case worker, manager and chair of child protection conferences (which has also involved working with agencies, parents and carers in the UK, Cyprus, the Northern Territory and, now Sydney, to ensure that vulnerable children and young people are provided with appropriate care and support) she has an outstanding background to help reform and redefine the archdiocese’s approach to handling the biggest issue it has ever had to deal with.

As Child Protection Week (running from 4-11 September, an annual national observation designed to help foster awareness of this issue and support proactive measures on behalf of children) arrives, Ms Larkman’s office has already been kept busy throughout 2016 training archdiocesan agencies and parish staff and volunteers – in short, anyone who works with minors – as she seeks to forge a new culture in the archdiocese.

So far, 23 Safeguarding Training days have been held, usually in the archdiocese’s Polding Centre headquarters on Liverpool Street in Sydney’s CBD.

Since commencement earlier this year, a steady stream of more than 420 archdiocesan personnel have participated in the days, which take participants through the basics of the new policies and practices of the archdiocese.

On training days, issues covered include familiarisation with signs and symptoms of abuse, how to make a workplace environment safe and protective of minors, employees’ reporting obligations and safe recruitment practices.

Participants are also familiarised with the Archdiocese’s policies governing protection of minors and look at the difference between safe-guarding (the proactive introduction of strategies and practices) and child protection (the reaction to allegations of abuse).

Progress is being made: Ms Larkman estimates around 80 per cent of the archdiocese’s priests and clergy have participated in the days, while around half of all archdiocesan parishes have now had either the parish secretary or administrator participate as well.

But while training days are generally aimed at existing staff and agencies and held in the Polding Centre they can also be tailored to the needs of any group.

One Safeguarding training session was held at St Mary’s Cathedral for 34 volunteers.

Reflecting the importance with which the archdiocese sees her newly created office, Ms Larkman was joined in May by Rebecca King who took over the new role of Training and Development officer for the new Safeguarding Office; in September Ms Larkman is expecting to be joined another staffer who will work in policy development and the handling of any complaints that may be registered.

In many ways the creation of the Ministerial Integrity Office is subversive, bucking the pattern of church administration in Australia in such matters for generations, the very thing that turned a blind eye for so long.

Writing on the ABC’s Religion and Ethics site in March this year, then Fr (now Bishop) Richard Umbers diagnosed some of the psychology of church administration of previous generations, dangerously close to the Nuremberg defense of escaping moral responsibility under orders.

“There is a fundamental problem, however, when a culture of secrecy starts to take hold and certain issues are deemed so politically charged and spiritually sensitive that whistle-blowing is prohibited,” he wrote.

“Nothing damages the Catholic Church’s ability to proclaim the Gospel like the abuse of secrecy and ‘its cousins … lying, stonewalling, happy talk and failure to consult’,” he wrote.

Meanwhile, as the Safeguarding and Ministerial Integrity Office program progresses across the archdiocese, at least 11 archdiocesan agencies have completed training days with Ms Larkman. There are plenty more to go, but it’s a good start.