Ian Elliott, NBSCCC
Ian Elliott is the Chief Executive of the National Office for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church (NBSCCC).
This address was given at the Keeping Children Safe conference sponsored by the Health Service Executive and hosted by University College Cork.
Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church in Ireland:
Reflecting on Experience
click on link to download full text – Keeping Children Safe (UCC) – Ian Elliott
.. the journey over the last two years has been truly remarkable. There are champions for children in the Church that deserve the highest praise. They are at all levels of the Church and many are within the hierarchy. There is a sense of purpose and commitment which is increasingly evident. The aim of establishing the Church as an exemplar for best safeguarding practice has gained major support. People are becoming more confident and are more ready to receive advice, guidance, and also correction. We are in a very different place to where we where two years ago…
…The Catholic Church in Ireland occupies a prominent position in most peoples thinking when considering the subject of keeping children safe. Sadly, in most cases this is for the wrong reasons. No other body in Ireland has been the subject of such sustained criticism nor has been damaged so severely for its apparent failure to act to prevent harm to children, than the Catholic Church. The fact that it has been the subject of four government inquiries in recent years within this jurisdiction testifies to that fact. Journalistic careers have been enhanced through focusing on the problem. Several books have been written and articles penned. Despite all this, the problem has continued…
In July 2007 I was appointed to the post of Chief Executive Officer for the newly created National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church in Ireland. The setting up of that body was evidence of a strong determination to create a framework within the Church that would ultimately help transform it from its unsatisfactory state to one of being seen as an exemplar for best practice. To do this, the body had to be independent of the Church and professionally led. It drew members from the legal professions, academia, business and health services…
Complex and Fragmented Church Structure
Not being a member of the Church, when I took up my post I had only a very rudimentary understanding of the structure and culture of the Catholic Church. Naively, I believed that it was one large but single body with an overall head in charge here in Ireland. I had no appreciation of the complex and fragmented nature of the body that is referred to as the Catholic Church.
Although it is described as a single Church, it is more easily understood as a single communion with close to two hundred different constituent elements. There is no one person who is resident in Ireland and holds the authority to direct all the various parts of the body to act in a particular way. This separateness may in some respects be viewed as strength but in others it is a major obstacle. From a safeguarding children perspective, it is a challenging hurdle to be continually overcome…
The most difficult issues for the Church to overcome are those that arise from its structure. It is the largest membership organisation on the island of Ireland with over four and a quarter million members. There are 1366 parishes, 2646 churches, 5069 priests, 942 brothers, and 8093 sisters . By any scale, it is a very substantial organisation. However, it is not a single body but rather a number of quite separate ones that are linked. There are dioceses, religious congregations, orders, missionary societies, prelatures, and religious institutions. In all, there are 184 different parts to the Church in Ireland and each has its own head. Many have their own constitutions and relate to head quarters located in Italy, France, the United States, or some other part of the world.
The task of organizing and motivating the whole Church to adopt and implement a single approach to any issue should not be underestimated…
New National Standards and Audits
In February of this year, the National Board published its guidance Safeguarding Children: Standards and Guidance for the Catholic Church. The importance of this development is not simply that the content of the guidance was compliant with legislation in the field in both jurisdictions on the island of Ireland, as well as with canon law within the Church. The true value of the document lay in the fact that all the constituent parts of the Church had signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the National Board that they would implement the contents of the guidance fully and would mandate the National Office to audit and review their practice to ensure compliance.
For the first time, all 184 constituent parts of the Church had given power to an independent body to monitor their practice. This represents the single most valuable development that has taken place during the short but eventful life of the National Board and for me as its Chief Officer..
… the journey over the last two years has been truly remarkable. There are champions for children in the Church that deserve the highest praise. They are at all levels of the Church and many are within the hierarchy. There is a sense of purpose and commitment which is increasingly evident. The aim of establishing the Church as an exemplar for best safeguarding practice has gained major support. People are becoming more confident and are more ready to receive advice, guidance, and also correction. We are in a very different place to where we where two years ago…
I do not wish to give the impression that we are further down the road than we are. There is still a great deal to do but I do feel that we have a commitment and a recognition that the problem can be solved and we can achieve the aim of being seen as an exemplar for best practice in the filed of safeguarding children. Getting there is still some way off but there is a growing sense that it is achievable.
Conclusion and future targets
Let me conclude by highlighting for you some of the targets that I would set for the future for the National Board, my office, and for all those involved in safeguarding children in the Church. If we look at structure, resources, services, and policy, I would list the following:-
- The development of a coherent and comprehensive framework for the delivery of safeguarding services across all parts of the Church. The present structure is dominated by the large and rich dioceses at the expense of the small and poor who do not have access to the same resources. As a consequence, creating best practice is much more demanding for them.
- The recruitment of a larger number of suitably qualified and experienced professionals who can support the embedding of best safeguarding practice across all parts of the Church.
- A review of the Coimirce initiative to highlight was has been learnt from the first years of its existence, and to apply this learning to the project.
- To continue to build trust with all the various stakeholders and to seek their continued support for the development of the work. These include the survivors of abuse, along with priests, and members of the hierarchy, and the faithful within the Church as a whole.
- Ensure that all policy and procedural changes brought forward within the Church comply fully with legislation and reflect best practice.
We need to move away from a reactive response to a much more strategic and proactive approach. To achieve this, the Church has to be prepared to learn from its history and find the courage to seize the opportunity which it now has to reach for a new reality. Consistently putting the safety of the child first before all other considerations is not just optional advice, it is essential. If nothing else, I would believe that this vital lesson has been learnt by those in authority within the Church and from reflecting on experiences over the last two years. (Ends)