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Mission in Ministry 2021: Towards a Theology of Safeguarding

Mission in Ministry 2021: (Reflection on the presentation given by Fr Hans Zollner SJ January 2021)

“Towards a Theology of Safeguarding”

The NBSCCCI (National Board for Safeguarding Children Catholic Church Ireland) is currently focusing through a series of short videos commissioned from theologians, scripture scholars and ethicists, on exploring a Theology of Safeguarding. The series will consist of nine short video presentations leading to a National Conference on the theme of Towards a Theology of Safeguarding.

It is now commonplace to hear the declaration that ‘safeguarding is everyone’s responsibility’. A Theology of Safeguarding is nothing new but rather is a process of unearthing, rediscovering the living principles which are already implicit in the nature of the Church and its mission, the authentic witness to the work of God in Christ and the teaching of the Gospels.

This implicit nature of the Church was and has been eroded over the centuries through individual and institutional abuse of the role of safeguarding as everyone’s responsibility. The institutional church and some of the clergy and religious within that institution have harrowed out the lives of the innocent through acts of criminality and depravity through child sexual abuse for centuries as outlined by Fr Hans Zollner in his presentation on a Theology of Safeguarding.

Fr Hans Zollner SJ is founding President of the Centre for Child Protection at the Institute of Psychology at the Pontifical Gregorian University of Rome. He is the Pontifical Commission for the protection of Minors and Consultor for the Congregation of Clergy.

What areas would a comprehensive Theology of Safeguarding need to address; and how can Church safeguarding personnel contribute to its development?

He begins by saying that there has been very little if any theological reflection on the plague of child sexual abuse within the Church. He says all reflection, all theology has to begin by listening to the victims of child sexual abuse and then there has to be a process of understanding of what happened to those victims.

Why was there so much child sexual abuse within the church not over the last number of years but over the last number of centuries? This acknowledgement certainly dispels with the hollow phrases we have heard so often “we didn’t know, we are on a learning curve” and so on. Why has the sexual abuse of children remained hidden for so long, why was it perpetually covered up and by whom and for whom? These are haunting questions. These questions will need answers if we want a Theology of Safeguarding developed within the Church.

How could a sacramental church be so neglectful of all the hurt and the suffering inflicted upon so many innocent children over centuries?

What is redemption? What does it mean that Jesus died for our sins? Many children who were sexually abused by clergy and religious speak about “the death of the soul”. How can they experience redemption when their souls are already dead? These children who were sexually abused realised that trust has been destroyed.

Many thoughts and searchings will remain questions within the search for a Theology of Safeguarding. It is clear that what exists as Church cannot provide a credible Theology of Safeguarding as it is shackled beyond the possibilities of movement to a historical institutional body that is part of the problem and not the solution. As an individual within an institution what can you do to unshackle yourself and become part of the solution? As an individual within an institution how can change your own attitudes? Every member of our Society can begin by living the guidelines in place and making them part of our daily spiritual lives.

What does it mean when we say the Church is Apostolic, Holy, in the light of so much child sexual abuse committed by members of the clergy and religious? Where is the balance between mercy and justice in this whole process? Many times while dealing with cases of clerical child sexual abuse the mercy and the compassion tended to be afforded to the perpetrators of the criminal acts. I often wonder why this was. Where does the practice of reconciliation and penance fit in within a Theology of Safeguarding?

What is our understanding of priesthood; why did so many priests not listen to the victims but remained entrenched within a process of “Clerical Institutional Group Think”? Where was accountability in the theological understanding of priesthood?

We have many, many questions regarding the evolution of a Theology of Safeguarding and few answers except one, that is, we need to practice humility.

It is through deep humility that the Church can learn about victims of child sexual abuse and why so many of the clergy and religious engaged in criminal acts of depravity and were left unchallenged by so many within the Institutional Clerical Church.

Perhaps the hierarchical model of church with superiors and inferiors prevented the practice of humility. Jesus said, “Unless you become like little children, you cannot enter the Kingdom of God”. I feel the Church at this time needs humility in abundance in order to survive, in order to understand the survivors of clerical child sexual abuse, in order to develop a living, flexible and meaningful Theology of Safeguarding.

The practice of humility is the key to unlocking a Theology of Safeguarding; it provides an opportunity to embark upon the possibilities of change, conversion, conciliation, and conscience. Humility entails listening, accepting, digesting and letting go. Real humility is accepting responsibility and accountability for one’s own life and for that life within the life of the Church.

Humility is the beginning and it is the end, it is the only possibility of growing in understanding of a Theology of Safeguarding. A community can practice humility but can institution practice humility?

We as the Catholic Church are not just another group that needs to be regulated by internal and external norms and laws; we are a faith community, the people of God, the Body of Christ, are faith in motion with many moving parts. It may be time to allow the evolvement of our faith into what it was always meant to be, that is, small communities of accountability and responsibility for the development of God’s creation.

Denis C Hartnett mhm

Mill Hill Missionaries-Ireland

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