Dear Sisters and Brothers
The last time I addressed you on safeguarding matters was mid-February, in the wake of news stories about abuse at the Marist College here in Largs. At the time, I said that I would address you again on the Meeting on abuse that was to take place later in February in Rome between the Pope and all the Presidents of the Bishops’ Conferences of the world. That meeting took place from 21-24 February. It included a number of interventions by the Pope, speeches from various bishops, the testimonies of five survivors of abuse from the five continents and the input of experts in various fields related to the problem of abuse. The organizing committee of the meeting also met privately with 12 men and women who had been abused by members of the clergy. There was also a public penitential service and, to conclude it, a concelebration of Mass.
All of these elements had their own importance. What struck me as being a particular sign of hope was that the Pope said at the beginning of the meeting: “The holy People of God looks to us, and expects from us not simple and predictable condemnations, but concrete and effective measures to be undertaken. We need to be concrete.” I was perhaps too quick to be disappointed when, at the end of the meeting, no such concrete and effective measures were in fact produced, but only more talk. I then gleaned, however, from various reports that the measures in question would in fact be made known in a not too distant future. As you are perhaps aware, these measures were duly published by the Pope on 9 May last in what’s called an Apostolic Letter entitled, “You are the Light of the World.”
It’s not bedtime reading. It is a legal text due to come into force on 1 June which establishes new procedural rules to combat sexual abuse in the Church and to ensure that bishops and religious superiors, and not just priests and religious, are held accountable for their actions. Every diocese in the world must, by June 2020, set up public and easily accessible mechanisms to report abuse. Reporting obligations on clergy cover not only suspected or evident abuse but also any attempts to cover them up. Interestingly, the document obligesclerics in this regard but only encouragesthe laity to do the same. The new law deals more explicitly with the obligation to report abuse by bishops themselves or any attempt bishops make to interfere with civil or canonical investigations or to cover up the abuse by others.
The new law also spells out more clearly measures of protection for victims, whistleblowers and indeed for the accused. Victims and whistleblowers must not be subjected to prejudice, retaliation or discrimination. They cannot be required to keep silence. Care and assistance are to be offered to victims and their families. At the same time, any just legal system must protect the rights of the accused, especially due process and the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.
Some have criticised the new law for failing to mandate reporting of abuse or of a cover-up to the civil authorities. However, it must be remembered that this new law is only competent to make prescriptions within the internal legal system of the Church, or canon law. For this reason, it does not elaborate matters pertinent to civil law. That said, article 19 of this new document specifically mandates all bishops, priests and religious to comply fully with the prescriptions of civil law. It reads: “These norms apply without prejudice to the rights and obligations established in each place by state laws, particularly those concerning any reporting obligations to the competent civil authorities.”
These new norms have been approved for a trial period of three years. During that time, we will find out if they are fit for purpose. Certainly, any law is only as effective as the will of those charged with implementing it. These new norms do not establish any new penalties for failure to comply with them, which means that the penalties in the general law of the Church will be applicable. While that is fine as far as it goes, my own experience with the Church’s penal law is that it can be enormously difficult and can take a long period of time for penalties to be applied. Perhaps, therefore, it would have been better to include penalties in the new text and to provide swifter procedures to impose them.
Reactions to both the February Meeting and the new law have been predictable: either wholesale dismissal or exaggerated approval. I think the truth is in the middle. A process is underway which is gathering pace. It has already brought us to a much better place than we were ever before in this serious and painful matter, but I think the Holy See itself will admit that there is still some way to go. Talking and law-making need accompanied by a change of mentality, a change of heart, a sense of urgency as well as plain old action. I’m really describing here the need for a conversion process in the Church on these matters. I think, though, that moderate satisfaction with what has happened since February is certainly in order. Our attention stays focused nonetheless on the practical and effective fruits of these new developments and, where necessary, on the hoped-for courage and decisiveness of the Church to make changes when the reality on the ground demands it.
Finally, I refer you to the parish Safeguarding Audit summary for 2018 which is available at the back of the church for you to take home. I have written my comments on it in the brochure itself so as not to prolong my statement now. I will make only two remarks. The Audit refers to the evaluation of the parish’s performance in safeguarding. Please note that this is a self-evaluation which, however, was also seen by the diocesan safeguarding team and reviewed independently, and from whom we have to date received no feedback. Secondly, please feel free to provide any feedback yourselves either to Mr. Gordon Sutherland/Mr. Donnie McGilveray, our parish Safeguarding Coordinator, or to myself. Perhaps as a third remark, I could publicly thank Gordon/Donnie on all our behalves for his hard and diligent work. Thank you.