Seven years have passed since the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was called in response to widespread allegations of child abuse which spanned decades. In the hearings that followed, 40 per cent of the reports of abuse made were Catholic-related.
As the examples of crimes, gross negligence, mismanagement and culpability mounted in Commission hearings, the public increasingly became cynical of the Church, seeing it as hesitant – at best – to acknowledge the crimes that had occurred within. Public goodwill rapidly evaporated as the words ‘Catholic Church’ came to be near-synonymous with the term “sex offender”.
Yet Safeguarding offices in Catholic dioceses around Australia are filled with passionate people, all working constantly to confront the tragedy which occurred within and to bring about change. Because of the stigma, their efforts have largely gone unnoticed.
Karen Larkman, director of the Archdiocese of Sydney’s Safeguarding and Ministerial Integrity Office, is one of these passionate people.
Her job is responding to allegations of abuse and training all Church personnel – clergy, agency and diocesan staff – in safeguarding requirements and principles.
The creation of her office, together with her appointment, was announced by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP as a key priority in 2015.
Prior to joining the archdiocese of Sydney, she worked in child protection in the UK. Moving to Australia she became a designated child protection officer for CatholicCare and also led a working party for a Royal Commission case study into abuse in Out-of-Home Care.
She highlights the importance of changing the culture of leadership as a key strategy in addressing abuse’s legacy and threat.
“As parish priests are leaders within their parishes and are instrumental in setting the culture, [we] want to support priests to ensure that our parishes are child-safe environments and that the culture within the parish recognises and values every child and young person”, she told The Catholic Weekly.
Despite the poor image clergy have suffered because of the scandals, they are of key importance to change.
That’s why one focus of safeguarding offices around the country is to train clergy, pivotal figures in parish settings, to be leaders of cultures of change.
While such offices across the nation remain relentlessly on-message, flexibility is also key to success. Karen strives to ensure that training and awareness-raising sessions respond to feedback and so create an effective learning experience for all who attend.
During presentations, she and her three-person team ensure that attendees understand how to respond to disclosures of abuse, provide examples of best practice and inform them of both statutory responsibilities and the expectations of the Archdiocese’s Policy and Protocols.
No-one misses out. The team guides clergy, parish and agency personnel in matters such as how to safely recruit, conduct effective background checks and identify potential issues – and what to do if any concerns rise.
The experience, she says, was initially “heavy going.” Early sessions felt like they were more of a “venue for people to vent.” But the messaging has had a positive impact in terms of clergy and employees understanding their responsibilities and wanting to find out more.
Karen’s office now receives questions almost daily from parishes and agencies keen to ensure they understand their responsibilities and are meeting compliance expectations.
She says there is a lot of knowledge and expertise among the clergy and she works hard to ensure that those attending training sessions are given the opportunity to share their knowledge with others as well as walking away having learnt something new.
Since its establishment in November 2015, the Sydney Safeguarding Office has provided an annual report to the Archdiocese.
Over time there has been a steady increase in attendees at its courses and presentations. More importantly, a much greater understanding and awareness of safeguarding principles and how these are applied has developed.
“The culture is definitely changing and our parish priests are showing real leadership in this change,” she says.
Mark Eustance, director of the Archdiocese of Brisbane’s Safeguarding office, agrees, saying he is “seeing a considerable change for the better within the [Brisbane] Archdiocese”.
“People are ready to see change … [they’re] a bit fatigued, but there is motivation to see change,” he told The Catholic Weekly.
He recalls how he approached clergy, informing them that his team wanted all Brisbane priests to get ‘blue cards’ and a criminal history check.
Blue cards are the official certification and identity system used in Queensland which certify that an individual has a clear criminal record in relation to minors.
Where Mark initially expected hesitance and complaints, he instead received widespread support from archdiocesan clergy and staff. Today, he said, there could still be hesitance in some quarters but “a large percentage of people within the archdiocese are motivated about this change.”
Maria Hicks, the manager for the Safeguarding offices in the Archdiocese of Canberra-Goulburn also notes a pattern of growing interest and engagement within the Church.
With the support of Archdiocesan Vicar-General Fr Tony Percy, a training program was developed for delivery in parishes. There has been “significant inquiries from parishes, as well as groups and movements seeking to be involved with this training,” she told The Catholic Weekly.
“I have also seen a greater willingness by the clergy to engage with my office; to seek support and advice when matters involving children and/or vulnerable people come to light,” she said.
However, while safeguarding is about training and spreading awareness, its core is prevention. “We can’t just wait for bad things to happen,” Mark Eustance explains. Apart from handling complaints of an historical nature his Brisbane office has also formulated strategies aimed at preventing any recurrences.
These include awareness-raising exercises for parents, children, congregations and church employees in areas such as how to be alert to – and spot – potential signs of grooming.
His office also assists parishes to carry our risk assessments on parish and agency activities and to conduct proper screening of volunteers.
Brisbane, interestingly, is the first archdiocese in Australia to have been audited in relation to safeguarding by Catholic Professional Standards, the independent agency set up by Australia’s bishops to ensure all church entities meet safeguarding stands and policies.
Mark is expecting the draft report this week and is pushing for the final report to be available in time for Child Protection Week, observed in the first week of September.
A common trend the feedback safeguarding teams receive is attendees expressing interest in further learning material as well as opportunities for further discussion of the issues.
While the initial atmosphere in sessions could be heavy going, over the years there has been a growing interest among attendees to learn more about the problem.
Where there was once hesitancy and uncertainty about what they should be doing because of the unprecedented nature of the crisis, there is now a growing desire to know how abuse can be detected and prevented.
Karen Larkman says that 80 per cent of the work of her team of three, excluding herself, is spent working with parishes on preventative strategies. The rest of their time goes on handling inquiries and concerns, such as calls from parishes for advice and support in recruitment processes or risk assessments for activities. For Karen, the percentages are the other way around, with 80 per cent of her work spent handling specific issues, such as complaints of an historical nature, with the remainder of her time devoted to preventative strategies.
All this happens alongside preparing and giving presentations.
As such, Karen and her team are working constantly to confront a problem that many among the public think or assume the Church is ignoring. The same can be said for offices across Australia, with other directors, like Mark Eustance and Maria Hicks having just as many responsibilities.
Damian Reeves, the Professional Standards and Safeguarding Officer for the Catholic Diocese of Wagga Wagga, says he is “continuously impressed in my role to see the many Safeguarding Officers from different diocese openly share best practice and advice in this field, to ensure best practice in preventative measures”.
Some of the other responsibilities of safeguarding offices include overseeing the development of protocols and policies, conducting internal and external compliance audits, and occasionally managing investigations of allegations of misconduct.
Mark said his Brisbane office also ensures that parishes are up to speed with policies through an ongoing program of parish visits.
While, like his colleagues nation-wide, his office is the primary contact point for handling allegations, should it be needed it receives whatever support is required from the archdiocese.
Meanwhile, Damian told The Catholic Weekly, “considerable resources are dedicated annually, and have been committed, in the last few decades across Australia, by schools, diocese and other Catholic agencies to ensure best practices in both response to any child safety breaches as well as protecting future generations.”
While sharing the same kinds of responsibilities as other offices across Australia, the Perth Safeguarding Office has one additional focus: preventative education of children and families.
The Perth archdiocesan Safeguarding Office is overseen by Andrea Muslin, a former specialist police officer with 25 years of experience, which includes working in areas such as child protection and domestic violence.
Like her colleagues around the nation, she’s passionate about child protection.
Her office aims to provide children and families with the tools to prevent abuse. Each year it also hosts a child protection breakfast during Child Protection Week to spread awareness of the problem and the responses.
On top of this, she has the same kinds of responsibilities as the other Safeguarding offices across Australia; similarly to Karen Larkman, she leads a small team of four including herself.
Even if the general public believes otherwise, within each diocese there is something which didn’t exist 20 years ago, teams or individuals equally passionate about their work, wanting to ensure nothing like this problem ever happens again.
“My role addresses the significant failings of our past and, at the same time, works with our Archdiocesan leaders, employees and volunteers to ensure a present that cherishes and respects the gift of our children,” says Maria Hicks.
“What is of greatest importance is that we all continue to respect each other’s roles, and the contribution we are each trying to make to the Church and work together.”
Karen Larkman also sees Safeguarding as a “shared responsibility” that doesn’t just lie with her or any of the safeguarding directors across Australia but with everyone – inside and outside the Church.
She says it’s important that complacency is not allowed to settle in and that the Church listens to the voices of survivors in all decision making.
In recent years, safeguarding offices across Australia have noticed a change within the Church: as more has come to light, more and more people have become passionate about addressing the crimes and failures of the past. It’s a good trend.
That reported incidents of serious harm have reduced so much, Damian Reeves, believes, is largely due to the commitment these offices have introduced.
“I note that across the nation the Catholic Church has some 25-plus directors of diocesan safeguarding or professional standards offices, and almost half of them have professional legal or criminal investigative experience,” he says.
“Many more such dedicated roles now lie in the top tiers of religious institutes and orders.
“To me it is clear that where honest collaboration and consultation occurs within and across the operational sharp end, practitioners like my peers, the faithful and all Church employees should feel confident that the best systems of reporting, recording and acting are at the forefront of the minds of our Church leaders to protect our children today and in the future.”
Meanwhile, he adds, “I personally find it a very rewarding space to work within. And I keep in mind the words of the great Irish political philosopher Edmund Burke: ‘the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing’.”
Safeguarding teams in diocesan and archdiocesan offices are, so to speak, on the front line and at the coalface, changing cultures by creating awareness and instituting measures to prevent any recurrence of the greatest tragedy in the history of the Church in this country.
By any measure, it’s a job that can’t be allowed to fail – under any circumstances.