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Towards a Theology of Safeguarding: How to put a Theology of Safeguarding into Practice

Mission in Ministry 2021: (Reflection on the presentation given by Fr Paddy Boyle April 2021

The NBSCCCI (National Board for Safeguarding Children Catholic Church Ireland) is currently undertaking a series of reflections and presentations to develop a Theology of Safeguarding.

Fr Paddy Boyle is a priest of the Archdiocese of Dublin, with a background in education at various levels. He has spent ten years as coordinator of training for the Dublin Archdiocese, which included becoming a registered trainer with the NBSCCCI and tutor. Fr Paddy will try through his presentation to develop how to put a Theology of Safeguarding into Practice and what that will actually look like.

Pope Francis in 2013 went to a youth conference in Rio de Janeiro and at that conference he said: “Young people are the window through which the future enters the world. They are the window and our generation must show that it can rise to the promise found in each young person by giving them space. This means we have to create the material and spiritual conditions for their full development and give them a solid basis on which to build their young lives. We need to guarantee their safety and education. We are challenged to pass on values to them that make life worth living; and to give the young the legacy of a world worthy of human life and to awaken in them the possibilities of their own destiny”.

The words from the Pope’s speech are both inspirational and at the same time aspirational at many levels. Pope Francis is, of course, coming from a faith based perception of the world, of life and of every human being who has lived or who shall live. Faith for him implies a human response.

A legacy of child sexual abuse committed by some members of the clergy and the religious, some of our own members included, has negated the possibility for many of these children from being a window into the future. Children who were sexually abused by depraved clergy and religious remain frozen, their possibilities crushed. Their lives have been shattered and their dreams turned to nightmares repeated over and over in perpetuity. A Theology of Safeguarding must to be inspirational and aspirational in order to safeguard the dreams of the young so that they can safely act as windows through which the future enters the world.

After the profession of faith in the baptismal ceremony we proclaim,” this is our faith and we are proud to profess it”. Faith is informed and nourished by the scriptures and by theology. Theology is faith seeking understanding. Faith is not replaced by understanding or reason but rather complimented and nourished by it. Faith is a seeking of the love of God and an impetus to act as God wishes. All forms of theology should deepen, enhance, enrich our faith and lead us to God. Theology is simply the attempt to understand God.

Pope Francis has some interesting insights concerning children. He says, “God has no difficulty being understood by children and children have no trouble understanding God. It is not by accident that the Gospels speak so strongly about children. Children are a treasure for humanity and the Church.”

The clearest passage in scripture which reflects this view point is Genesis 1:26, “Then God said, let us make humankind in our image according to our likeness”. This is without doubt an incredibly exalted understanding and vision of the human being, of the human person. These texts in Genesis go on to describe the relationship between God and his creation, between God and humanity. It is a relationship based on love, effective love. God is a moral God who acts.

In the creation narratives God shows himself as the provider, and the protector of the human being and the Garden of Eden as Pope Francis would say, “Is a place worthy of human life, where everything is provided to enable the human person to grow, to develop and to reach his or her greatest potential”. The sexual abuse of children by some of the clergy and the religious over many years turned this Garden of Eden into dark oblivion for many innocent children, their futures stolen by the depravity of evil and the agents of evil that were and are protected by institutional structures and practices instead of being challenged for their acts of depravity.

Today the mission of the Church is to show God’s love. After 2000 years or so of Christianity, it is incumbent on the Church to provide and to protect, to pass on lasting values, love, truth, justice and peace, and it is as urgent now as it ever was.

Jesus before he ascended to his Father gathers the eleven apostles and he tells them to go, to baptise, to teach everything, he says, everything I have commanded you. Jesus commanded us to love God and our neighbour, so long as you did this to the least of these little ones you did it to me.

This has always been the core of the mission of the Church, to love God and to love our neighbour, to provide, to protect, to teach, to pass on, to safeguard, to nourish, and to enhance what is passed on. The core mission of the Church has been and still is to be a portal where young people are the window through which the future enters the world.

All the promises contained at baptism are geared towards allowing any child to be a window through which the future enters the world. Therefore the Church is charged to develop policies and procedures that will allow a child to grow and have a future. But not only have we to do this but we have to go beyond policies and procedures and actually safeguard children.

The Church needs to develop a Theology of Safeguarding that will correspond to its living faith. The church has a rich diverse theological history that it can draw upon to develop the faith in a way that provides, protects and develops the child. Each child is a treasure and faith is a gift. Every child is a unique thought in the mind of God. Every child is needed. Every child should be loved. Every child has the right to live their life, free from sexual abuse or exploitation, especially by members of the clergy and the religious.


A Theology of Safeguarding depends to a large extent on the attitude of clergy and religious, attitude is everything. A bad attitude is like a flat tyre, you cannot go anywhere until you change it. Pope Francis put it another way when he addressed the superiors at Rome when he said: “If priests and religious are involved in the sexual abuse of children, it is clear that the devil is at work. And if they don’t understand this fact, then they are part of the problem of child sexual abuse and not part of the solution.” As an individual you can ask yourself, “Am I part of the solution or part of the problem?” Can an institution be part of the solution within the complexities of legal procedures that appear to paralyse the process of seeking justice for the victims in a timely manner?

If we want to be part of a Theology of Safeguarding going forward we need the childlike qualities of openness, trust and real living transparency. We need to be like the young people who are the window through which the future enters the world. The glass in any window through which the future may enter the world is humility. The practice of humility will set us free. The practice of humility will rid the Church of arrogance, secrecy, privilege and clericalism. Humility will create possibilities for a new vision of humanity, a new vision of Church that will be based on equality, respect, justice and truth.

The history of child sexual abuse committed by some of the clergy and religious is part of our shameful history, we can’t deny this but hopefully we can learn from it. We have to continually avoid minimisation, denial, and any distortion of that history. The lessons of history are not how we behaved in the past as a church but how we behave in the present as we develop a real Theology of Safeguarding where every child may be a window through which the future enters the world and indeed enters the Church.

Denis C Hartnett mhm

Knock Shrine- Ireland

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