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Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, president of the Australian bishops' conference, and Sister Monica Cavanagh, president of Catholic Religious Australia, pictured, said that adoption of the National Catholic Safeguarding Standards is a major step in the Church’s ongoing response to child sexual abuse. Photo: CNS photo/David Gray, Reuters
Archbishop Mark Coleridge, president of the Australian bishops’ conference, and Sister Monica Cavanagh, then-president of Catholic Religious Australia, pictured in 2019 when they said that adoption of the National Catholic Safeguarding Standards is a major step in the Church’s ongoing response to child sexual abuse. Photo: CNS/David Gray, Reuters

This article has been updated with a correction, see below.

Concerns over changes to Church’s safeguarding efforts

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference has addressed concerns that a new national safeguarding office may be a step backwards from the work of Catholic Professional Standards Ltd over the past three years.

CPSL was established by the ACBC in response to the findings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse to conduct audits of church entities’ compliance with child safe standards and to deliver safeguarding training.

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It was set up as a not-for-profit company operating independently of the church hierarchy and runs at a cost of around $1.8 million a year. It is expected to be replaced early in 2021 by a national approach to streamline and coordinate the Church’s work to protect children and vulnerable adults.

Some Catholics are worried that the new approach being considered by the bishops may lack the independence and transparency of CPSL, with The Australian reporting that there is “concern that old habits of secrecy and non-transparency are creeping back into the church”.

But ACBC president Archbishop Mark Coleridge said it is “seriously mistaken” to see the decision to bring various national organisations into a single entity as a “diminishment in the Church’s commitment to child protection and safeguarding”.

“For more than 18 months, guided by some of the leading authorities in child safety in the Church and elsewhere, we’ve been moving towards the single national office that’s long been intended,” he said.

The new office “will retain the operational independence that Catholic Professional Standards Limited has enjoyed”, he added.

“We are confident this national entity can deliver on our commitment to the safety of children and vulnerable adults while also eliminating duplication and reducing costs at a time when all Church institutions are under financial pressure.”

New office to avoid duplication

The new office will assume key functions of CPSL and will supervise independent audits of Church institutions, the training of Catholic leaders and the development and review of national standards.

It will also incorporate functions currently the ambit of other national organisations, including the oversight of a new national protocol for handling complaints of sexual abuse.

An ACBC spokesperson confirmed that while there is ongoing review into the details of the new structure, it will be operationally independent and be funded in a similar way to CPSL.

“It is expected that the current funding model for national Catholic professional standards and safeguarding bodies, which sees the Conference and Catholic Religious Australia contribute, will continue,” the spokesperson said.

Fr Tony Percy, vicar general of the Archdiocese of Canberra-Goulburn, said the concerns about the Church seeking non-transparency in the area of safeguarding and professional standards were “complete nonsense”.

“The Catholic Church in Australia is spending just over $36 million per annum on professional standards and child protection matters,” he said. “This alone shows an extraordinary commitment to ensure that children and vulnerable people are safe, respected and protected.

“The figure includes Catholic education, religious orders, diocesan professional standards offices, state professional standard offices and bodies set up by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC).

“It is but one of three national entities which Church leaders are sensibly integrating into a single professional standards body.”

Fr Percy said it is “clearly preferable” for the Church and other institutions to receive training and resources and to be audited for compliance with child safe standards and working with children checks from outside sources.

He said that the Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn was recently audited by ACCESS Canberra (ACT) for its compliance with the Working with Vulnerable People Check.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn had been audited by CPSL. It has been audited by ACCESS Canberra (ACT) for its compliance with the Working with Vulnerable People Check.

Related articles:

Nothing lost, everything gained: why moving on from CPSL is important
Child abuse a terrible crime
Safeguarding officers work to create a new culture of safety
Safeguarding minors is a shared responsibility, says new child protection director

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