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Mission in Ministry: Towards a Theology of Safeguarding

Reflection on Presentation given by Dr Jessie Rogers “Towards a Theology of Safeguarding” June 2021

 “Jesus puts a child in their midst and tells the disciples to welcome children as a way of welcoming him”.

How can the Church take that seriously today?

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 Jessie Rogers from South Africa lectures in Sacred Scriptures, specialising in Old Testament Wisdom Literature. She is Dean of Theology at St Patrick’s College Maynooth, Ireland.

“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea”. (Mark 9:42)

An unintended consequence of taking seriously the safeguarding of children in the Church has been to marginalise them within the life of the people of God. It is often easier to exclude children from a space or activity than to put in place all the safeguarding measures. But this moves the Church in the opposite direction from the journey Jesus in the gospels requires us to take.

A good Theology of Safeguarding must enter into a deep conversation both with a Theology of Childhood and also with a robust Theology of Power.

The stories of Jesus and the children in the gospels present a wonderful image of openness and inclusiveness but they also point to something very fundamental about what it means to be a community in whom the risen Christ dwells.

In Mark chapters 8 to 10, Jesus and his followers are on the way to Jerusalem and Jesus is preparing them for what lies ahead. The disciples know who Jesus is they think, and yet they are still not really able to see what that means. Jesus warned them to be on their guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod (Mark 8:15). That powerful little phrase alerts them to the danger of power and status games and the danger of an approach to religious practice that leads to self-righteousness and the practice of exclusion.

“Then they came to Capernaum and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘what were you arguing about on the way?’ But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve and said to them. “Whoever wants to be first must be servant of all. Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ’whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me”. (Mark 9:33-37)

What is the antidote for this concern with power and status, this endless tendency to view God’s Kingdom as a place like some earthly kingdom? It is to put a child in the centre. The welcome or otherwise given to children is the welcome or otherwise given to Jesus Christ. We are open to Christ in our midst in the extent to which we are open to receiving and welcoming children.

A few verses later after Jesus challenges his disciples about attitudes of power and status, he warns them, “if any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea” (Mark 9:42)

There is a huge level of responsibility here; the revelations of child sexual abuse have made clear how welcoming children can become something much more sinister. The effects of child sexual abuse can have devastating and life-long consequences for any child. We have to avoid marginalisation of children just because we are afraid to implement good safeguarding policies and practices. Marginalisation is itself a form of abuse. When we exclude children because it is easier than implementing safeguarding policies we are excluding Christ. A community that closes its heart against children is closing its heart against Christ.

You see children in our midst are not the danger; they are a litmus test for the quality of our communities, if they are not safe our communities are diseased and nobody is safe within them. When children are safe our communities are healthy. A community with children at the centre is one that reflects the fruit of the spirit.

“People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it”. And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them and blessed them. (Mark 10:13-16).

The yeast of the Pharisees and of Herod is at work in the disciples as they are concerned that Jesus should not be distracted from the much more important task of ministering to adults. Jesus’ response is indignation, their priorities are upside down. Jesus’ command is clear, put nothing in the way of children.

We must remember that Safeguarding matters because children matter. Safeguarding can never be an excuse for marginalising children or other vulnerable people. If something is safe for the most vulnerable it is safe for everyone. The decision to put the child in the centre is a significant step in a process of conversion to a different way of exercising power in the Church. Bringing children and other vulnerable people to the centre is not so much a burden but rather an invitation for community to be more focused on Christ. Our treatment of children is a true reflection of how we treat Christ. We can talk a lot but it is in our actions towards children that we welcome Christ.

A Theology of Safeguarding needs a Theology of Childhood and a genuinely Christian Theology of Power, they are all related.

In conclusion we can say that Dr Rogers highlights the danger of practicing marginalisation of children to avoid implementing good safeguarding policies and practices. This is already happening in many communities, how often have you heard the phrase “we don’t need to sign in here as there are no children”, or “we don’t need to worry about that as we have no ministry with children”, or “most of our people are retired and are not in active ministry so no need for all that child protection stuff here”.

This mindset has and is creating a ghettoised church, a no go area for children and the result is that we are alienating our children from the faith and ending up with a church of the elderly. The sexual abuse of children by members of the clergy and religious was and is the work of Satan, the thief who comes to steal and kill and destroy (Jn10:10). What better description of abuse in which children are robbed of their worth, their lives are taken or they are left permanently scarred both physically and emotionally. Child sexual abuse by members of the clergy and the religious denies the worth of the child. Rather than being a person created in God’s image and loved by him, the child is made an object to be used for the gratification of depraved clergy and religious.

Child sexual abuse is a difficult and upsetting part of our history and evolving history. We need to recognise that ultimately child sexual abuse committed by clergy and religious is more than an issue of flesh and blood. It is part of the spiritual battle for which we need spiritual protection.

“Finally, be strong in the Lord with his energy and strength. Put on the armour of God to be able to resist the cunning of the devil. Our battle is not against human forces but against the rulers and authorities and their dark powers that govern this world. We are struggling against the spirits and supernatural forces of evil. Therefore put on the whole armour of God, that in the evil day, you may resist and stand your ground, making use of all weapons. Take truth as your belt, justice as your breastplate, and zeal as your shoes to propagate the gospel of peace. Always hold in your hand the shield of faith to repel the flaming arrows of the devil. Finally, use the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, that is, the word of God. Pray at all times as the Spirit inspires you. Keep watch, together with sustained prayer and supplications for all the holy ones”. (Ephesians 6:10-18)

Jesus took the spirituality of children very seriously. We know that the numerous accounts of Jesus bringing healing to people include incidents where we see children being healed. His attention to and acceptance of their worship of him (Matthew 21:15-16) shows us that he took the spirituality of children very seriously. It is a call for us to do the same and to try to think through the full implications of doing so.

Let us not practice the marginalisation of children within our communities but instead promote and own good Safeguarding Policies and Practices where we promote the presence of Christ in our midst through the lives of those children. Let us not regress to the bunkers of denial, clerical institutional group think, institutional amnesia, but rather let us embrace and own a Theology of Safeguarding founded on living policies and good practices. We can emerge from the darkness of child sexual abuse committed by clergy and religious and live God’s intention where every child should grow up in a loving, inclusive, caring Christian community.

Denis C Hartnett mhm

Mill Hill Missionaries

Knock Shrine-Ireland

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