The fifth day of the Royal Commission’s Catholic “wrap up” hearing was held today in Sydney. You can read a summary of yesterday’s hearings here.
The Commission today had just a single witness, Teresa Devlin, the CEO of the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church in Ireland.
Ms Devlin is a trained social worker, and after serving as the Director of Safeguarding for the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church in Ireland for a number of years, took on a role as its CEO.
National Board of Safeguarding Children
The National Board was established in 2006 following various inquiries into institutional child sexual abuse in Ireland. The National Board was not created as a result of any recommendation from an inquiry, but in anticipation of the outcomes of the inquiry. In this vein, it seems similar to the recent establishment of National Professional Standards Limited by the Australian Catholic Bishops.]
It is not compulsory for a diocese or religious order to sign up to the National Board, but all Irish dioceses and religious institutes have signed up, as well as certain Church agencies. Ms Devlin said that there was no significant Church body missing, but said that schools were covered by state regulations and so were outside the jurisdiction of the National Board.
The National Board is technically “independent” but fully funded by the Catholic Church. She said that the Board’s funding has never been threatened as a way for pressure to be exerted, but said that there can be debates, discussion and arguments amongst the Board and those within the Church, commenting that they “fight hard” to maintain their independence.
She then outlined the various roles of the National Board, including case management, policy and guidance, monitoring, review and training.
The National Case Management Committee made is a separate body, to which dioceses, religious orders and agencies can “opt in.” Its role is to provide advice on each stage of the process after receiving an allegation. Broadly speaking, the process is as follows:
- A complaint is received by the diocese or religious institute and a report to police and social services.
- A decision as to whether to stand an accused aside is made on advice from the Case Management Committee. If the accused has a public role or contact with children, the recommendation is that they be stood aside.
- A process under Canon Law is initiated, and immediately suspended until the end of the criminal and social services process (the canonical process can continue during civil litigation).
- At the conclusion of the civil process, the suspended canonical process resumes.
- If a preliminary investigation shows that the allegation is credible, the matter is referred to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).
Ms Devlin said that the canon law processes were helpful, because criminal convictions are rare, and so the Church processes are a way to provide justice to both complainant and accused. She did, however, say that there were delays experienced in sending documents to the CDF, explaining that because of the gravity of the matters, all CDF members read and deliberate each case. She said an alternative process needs to be considered.
She told the Commission that she believed that any documents held by the Vatican were also held in Ireland, and so did not believe there were secret documents out of the reach of civil authorities.
Policy and guidance
The National Board sets broad policy and standards, which are compulsory for members which sign up, but also detailed guidance – 300+ pages in length – which is not compulsory but is aimed to assist in the implementation of the standards.
The National Board also monitors the processes which occur, because it is expected that a diocese or religious order will involve them from the beginning, i.e. as soon as an allegation is made.
The National Board also conducts safeguarding reviews, which involves visiting the relevant diocese or religious institute, reviewing files and meeting with people. The review is announced ahead of time, giving lay people the opportunity to contact and meet the reviewers. After the review, a report is finalised and given to the Bishop or Provincial. It is expected that these reports are made public, with Ms Devlin noting that they attract huge media interest.
The National Board provides training for those who will train other staff, and also role-specific training.
Ms Devlin told the Commission that children are now safer in the Catholic Church than ever and that, while the State will not admit it, it has been acknowledged privately that Church processes are better than State ones.
She said the big concern now is complacency. She said that we like to believe that this is behind us; and with a single complaint being made in 2011 and another single complaint in 2015, it can appear to be the case. But she mentioned that new forms of risk to children (e.g., child pornography) are appearing, and the Church must be vigilant to ensure environments are safe and keeping up with the latest risks.
Some brief thoughts
Ms Devlin’s evidence was well-received by the Commission. The process she outlined is independent of the Church (apart from funding), lay-led and managed, auditable and transparent to such an extent that audits are made public, attracting what she calls “huge” media interest. It is national, and so it is consistent. It has been running now for 10 years, so it seems to be past the teething problems which no doubt it had. And most importantly, it is working, attracting the praise of not only civil authorities but also of the media.
It also seems similar to what was announced by the Australian Bishops’ with Catholic Professional Standards Limited.
In a previous column, I expressed my reservations about this, suggesting if an external body sets voluntary standards over and above legal requirements, audits compliance against those voluntary standards and makes the results public in the name of “transparency,” then a breach of standards which do not amount to a breach of law (or a risk to children) could still be seized upon by the media, undermining confidence in the Church and, importantly, hope that things are actually better. I surmised it could lead to a restriction of our pastoral activities, because compliance would be our most important consideration, not necessarily for the safety of children, but out of fear of negative media coverage. And part of the reason we are having this Royal Commission is because we acted out of fear of negative media coverage.
Those concerns remain, but I admit I was impressed with Ms Devlin’s evidence today. I think some of the concerns I had were addressed in her testimony. For example, the standards set by the National Board in Ireland are broader and principle-based, rather than specific, which allows for them to be adapted to the relevant Church ministry. The “heavier” regulations, the 300+ pages of guidance, are voluntary and so not audited against. And the reporting of the audit is not in the hands of the National Board, but the relevant diocese or religious order itself, allowing it to determine the method of release. This might seem like a small matter, but it reduces the risk that, as I said, negative media coverage could be used as a motivating factor in this space.
And I think the most important part of Ms Devlin’s testimony was a reminder that we need to remain vigilant; that no matter how pleased we are about the progress we have made, new threats to the safety of children arise all the time, and we need to make sure that we respond well not only to past and present challenges, but that child protection is so deeply embedded in our culture that we will be able to respond well to the risks in the future which we have not yet even imagined!