Mission in Ministry 2021: Towards a Theology of Safeguarding

Reflection on a Presentation given by Dr Marcia Bunge “Towards a Theology of Safeguarding “August 2021

“What is the significance of a robust and biblically based theology of childhood for safeguarding children, strengthening theology and empowering action?”

The NBSCCCI (National Board for Safeguarding Children Catholic Church Ireland) continues to explore a Theology of Safeguarding through a series of presentations by various theologians, scripture scholars and ethicists.

Dr Marcia Bunge Ph.D. in Theology University of Chicago and Tubingen, Germany has written extensively on children and childhood in world religions. Dr Marcia is a theologian, scholar and child advocate, her current work will be published in the fall 2021 entitled “Child Theology: Diverse Methods and Global Perspectives (Orbis Books 2021).

Dr Marcia Bunge begins her presentation by stating that the subject of children is marginal within theological studies and yet children make up one third of the human race. Her own theological research shifted from being adult centred to be more child attentive. She discovered that the topic of childhood is central in the bible and also in world religions.

Dr Marcia Bunge has a threefold aim:

  1. Provide an example of Robust Theology of Childhood
  2. Show some ways theologies of childhood can empower the church to safeguard children and help them thrive
  3. Emphasise the need to strengthen attention to children across theology (all doctrines and practices)

Theologies of Childhood raise two important questions, what are our conceptions of children and how are our commitments to them? These two questions are interrelated.

The bible depicts children as a gift of God and sources of joy that we should always delight in and be grateful for them. The bible affirms that children are whole and complete human beings made in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:27). Thus adults should treat children with dignity and respect. Can you image the shock when a child is sexually abused by a religious or cleric?

The bible also states that children are vulnerable and thus we are asked to provide for them, protect them and seek justice for them should they be harmed and especially if they are sexually abused.

The bible sees children as “developing beings”; they need guidance and not exploitation or abuse (Deuteronomy 6). The bible views children as social agents with growing moral capacities and responsibilities, we are to guide them. In addition the bible sees children as models of faith, spirit filled, and endowed with unique strengths, gifts and talents to contribute to the common good now and in the future if that future is not robbed through child sexual abuse.

If we neglect these biblical concepts of children then our conceptions of children become narrow and distorted and we risk treating them in inadequate and harmful ways. If we neglect to view children as fully human or if our vision is “adult centred”, then, we might emphasise the needs and reputations of adults and our institutions.

Avoiding abuse comes about when we develop robust theologies of childhood that hold together the biblical conceptions of children. It is in the biblical paradoxes of seeing children as gifts of God, as fully human that we shall allow ourselves to seek the safeguarding of all children.

The implications of Robust Theologies of Childhood expand our views of children; enable us to be proactive in safeguarding them. Robust Theologies of Childhood help us to prevent and respond to child sexual abuse by having living policies and practices.  As clergy and religious we need to be aware of the unique vulnerabilities of children and put in place measures that protect them. There is no point in the church being “pro-life” and at the same time not being “pro-child” through lack of good safeguarding practice. We have always to enlarge our vision of safeguarding children.

We need to strengthen theology to be child-attentive across doctrines and practices. Robust Theologies of Childhood empower the church to safeguard children and help them to thrive and where children thrive, the church and communities thrive. Robust Theologies of Childhood remind us that children are central in the life of the church and are not marginal.

Conclusions: Robust Theology of Childhood informs us that children are gifts of God and are made in His image. As clergy, religious and missionaries we are challenged to treat children with dignity and respect. The opposite of this challenge is child sexual abuse committed by the clergy and religious which has been termed “the absolute evil”, “spiritual devastation”, or “death of the soul”, and if there were any unforgiveable behaviour, it would probably be this. Many colleagues of perpetrators speak about compassion and forgiveness in detachment without any consideration for their victims. They attempt to close the wound before cleansing or healing it. An unbalanced or misplaced sense of forgiveness or compassion is the kind that ignores justice for the sexually abused children and panders to the grooming of perpetrators who never stop and who convince those groomed that they are some sort of victims, while we all know that the only victims are the sexually abused little children who were abused by those same sexual abusers.

I was at a jubilee recently in my Region and the celebrant quoted a former superior who said, “If you want to work with the marginalised; then be prepared to be marginalised”. I would say this is very true for members who try to repair the damage done by child sexual abusers in our Society and who find themselves marginalised for doing so by some of their fellow members.

These members do a disservice to humanity through their perverted misplaced loyalties that suffocate the dignity of victims of child sexual abuse and obstruct the development of a Robust Theology of Childhood, a Theology of Safeguarding. Evil always thrives when good people do nothing. “Childhood should be carefree, playing in the sun; not living a nightmare in the darkness of the soul”. (David Pelzer) “Children are the living messages we send to a time will not see”, let them not be robbed of that childhood by sexual abuse, let us uphold their dignity through our respect. How might robust theologies of childhood that honour the full humanity of children empower you to safeguard children and help them to thrive in your missionary life?

Denis C Hartnett mhm- Mill Hill Missionaries-Knock-Ireland

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