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Exclusive: Clergy lead the way in safeguarding capabilities

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Clergy are leading the way in their awareness and knowledge about keeping children safe in church and related environments according to new research led by Australian Catholic University.

Clergy who participated in the study from seven different countries scored highest across a range of safeguarding measures compared with other groups in the Catholic church.

The report from the ACU’s Institute of Child Protection Studies also finds that participants from countries which have undergone inquiries into institutional sexual abuse, such as Australia and the UK, have more positive attitudes towards the importance of safeguarding children and young people than those from other countries.

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Australian participants had the most positive attitudes towards abuse prevention and were most aware about their safeguarding policies and procedures.

The study, published in the journal Child Abuse & Neglect surveyed 184 participants working in or interacting with the church in Australia, the United Kingdom, the Philippines, Ghana, India and Poland, and a group of tertiary safeguarding students in Italy, grouping them into roles— clergy, postgraduate students, lay people, and school staff and safeguarding officers.

“Often what we see in safeguarding is where there is a lack of by-in from leadership, whether it’s a religious or secular organisation, then the safeguarding does not work as well,” lead author Douglas Russell told The Catholic Weekly.

“Our results tell us that potentially due to the work over the last few years by the church particularly where there have been inquiries, the priests and bishops have really come on board and are leading the church in relation to this.”

Participants rated on a scale of one to five their awareness of safeguarding policies and procedures, confidence to act to prevent or respond to abuse, knowledge and attitude about abuse prevention.

Clergy recorded the strongest results and the lay group the lowest across all countries when it came to positive attitudes about and taking personal responsibility for sexual abuse prevention and safeguarding (4.21 compared with 3.67 for laity), as well as their awareness of policies and procedures (3.99 and 3.53 respectively), knowledge of strategies that best support safe environments (4.33 and 4.18) and confidence to act (3.95 and 3.68).

Lead author and ICPS senior research officer Douglas Russell. Photo: Supplied

The report suggested that in different countries and roles within the church people are at different stages of their safeguarding journey.

Safeguarding initiatives “need to focus not only on church leaders and designated safeguarding leaders, but also on lay people in churches and church-run ministries for there to be widespread acceptance and culture change,” it read, whereas the clergy’s higher scores suggest they have largely been the target to date of safeguarding strategies, policy reform, and communication across the church.

Russell said the findings showed lay people need to become more involved in ensuring safety for children and young people in church and affiliated environments.

“Lay people within the church need to be brought on board, they need to be brought into the conversation and involved in aspects of keeping children and young people safe within the church.

“But it’s important to understand that everyone can play a role in keeping children and young people safe, and if you’ve got questions it looks like going to the head of your parish or diocese might be a good place to start.

“It doesn’t necessarily have to revolve around getting children and young people to speak up, although it’s good when they do, and it’s not necessarily about finding people who might perpetrate—it’s also thinking about the contextual prevention, anything we can do within our community or our parish to make children and young people safe.”

The study was co-authored by ICPS Director Professor Daryl Higgins and members of the Global Safeguarding Alliance.

It coincides with the recent release by the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference of a new, single national safeguarding code of conduct for all who work across Catholic ministries, prompted by a request of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse.

The 32-page document “Integrity in Our Common Mission” replaces two earlier codes of conduct that offered different guidance for clergy and lay leaders.

On its release Bishop Greg Bennet, chair of the Bishops Commission for Professional Standards and Safeguarding, said it had been developed to “guide, form, strengthen and affirm those behaviours which are expected of all engaged in the ministries of the church.”

Russell said there are hopes to repeat the ACU study with a larger international cohort which would also involve examining contemporary codes of conduct.

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