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Child protection takes priority at a painful price

IN the mid-1980s, stories surfaced in North America, both in Canada and the United States, concerning the sexual abuse of minors by personnel of the Catholic Church, and particularly by priests and male religious.

Initial reactions to these accounts were often those of disbelief, suspicion, even denial.

As the number of cases grew, these early reactions were augmented by those of shame, confusion and anger.

Within a few years, and certainly by the early 1990s, similar stories emerged in Australia, together with the same sequence of reactions. Responses by bishops and leaders of religious congregations to victims of abuse varied from very good to very poor.

Both groups (bishops and leaders) agreed to develop a national set of protocols to respond to such complaints, and these were first promulgated in December 1996 (revised December 2000) under the title Towards Healing.

Additionally, it was decided to develop a document of principles and standards for clergy and religious of the Catholic Church in Australia. These were published in June 1999 in the document Integrity in Ministry and are currently undergoing a comprehensive revision.

I was involved in the development of both documents, but it is the latter that I would like to highlight.

The early reaction of many clergy and religious to the idea of adopting a code of practice, or a code of ethics, was one of incredulity, sometimes anger.

They asked why such a document was needed when we already have the Gospels. Some felt offended and victimised, sensing that they were somehow being constrained in the free exercise of their ministry because of the crimes of a few of their colleagues.

These were, and are, understandable reactions. The Catholic tradition in this country has allowed priests and religious wide latitude in the exercise of their ministry, albeit within well defined boundaries and according to well known expectations of the people they served.

Sadly, none of these (Gospels, defined boundaries and known expectations) was able to prevent the abuse of which we are now only too painfully aware.

A fundamental concern of bishops and leaders, indeed of all members of the Church, must be the prevention of future abuse. The protection of children and vulnerable adults must be given top priority.

Therefore, a code of practice must be agreed on and implemented in a very public way. The future protection of children and vulnerable adults, the credibility of the Church, and the expectations of the wider society demand nothing less. Church personnel must be publicly accountable to the people they serve, and to the wider society.

Having said that, we also recognise that there is a two-edged sword in play as soon as behavioural expectations of clergy and religious are codified.

Reactions to the early drafts (there were several) of the first edition of Integrity in Ministry showed those of us on the writing committee just how complex a task this was.

To take a simple example: it was agreed that, in principle, a priest should not conduct any formal ministry in his living quarters. That seemed at least a reasonable constraint until it was pointed out that many rural parishes do not have the luxury of being able to partition off business areas in a separate building from living quarters in a small single-storey dwelling.

Beyond these practical difficulties, however, there emerged a more worrying spectre. In attempting to write down a code of practice, were we unwittingly stifling good and legitimate ministry?

I believe that the answer to this question in some cases is a clear ‘yes’. Just a few years ago I was talking with a headmaster (a religious brother) of a boarding school who was quite distressed that he had felt unable to console a young boy when informing him that his mother had just died. He said that a supportive arm around the boy’s shoulder would have been the obvious and appropriate thing to do, yet it was now ‘against the rules’, at least in private.

It seems to me that we are currently erring on the side of caution and, I have to say in the light of what we have been through over the past 15 years, this may be a necessary stage in our evolution as we develop protocols to ensure best practice in the protection of children.

An unfortunate by-product of this particular stage, however, is the erosion of spontaneous expressions of intimacy among clergy and religious as they attend to the many and varied tasks of their ministries with people, young and not so young.

Many of my confreres are perplexed that certain behavioural aspects of their pastoral style in the past (for many years in some cases) are now at least suspect, if not totally proscribed.

Why was I so self-conscious when the 18 year-old student hugged me? In truth, I have to admit that it was probably coming from an anxiety that arises from my share in the collective shame that we religious and clergy experience in the light of what we know of the tragic failures of some of our confreres and colleagues.

As a religious brother with several decades of ministry behind me which has involved teaching and administration in high schools (including boarding schools), coaching sports teams, running camps and retreats for youth, training of future brothers, practising as a clinical psychologist and consultant to religious congregations, and exercising leadership of my own province of brothers, a part of me resents that I have to learn a new set of rules about how I should relate to people.

Simultaneously, however, I recognise that this is a small price to pay if it contributes to a safer future for the people entrusted to our care, particularly the young.

Br Michael Hill is a Marist Brother, a clinical psychologist and co-chair of the Church’s National Committee for Professional Standards. This is part of a speech he delivered at a public forum called ‘Fear of Intimacy: The Problem and its Consequences’, held at Australian Catholic University’s North Sydney campus on November 5.

Written by: Staff writers
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