A good friend told me how shocked she was when she read about the two priests charged with sexual abuse.
In a show of respect towards confidentiality of the victim, the ongoing court case and the presumption of innocence of the accused, I will not delve into the details of the case.
However, it is clear that the Church has zero tolerance for abuse and, through its Safeguarding Commission, consistently reports allegations to the authorities.
The Safeguarding Commission celebrated its sixth anniversary last month. During this time, it has trained over 3,000 Church personnel, including priests, nuns, teachers, carers and volunteers. It investigated allegations of abuse and published its statistics in a transparent manner in a series of annual reports.
A new Certificate in Safeguarding Children and Young People offered by the University of Malta started in October 2020. The commission spearheaded this initiative in order to continue building a positive safeguarding culture in society.
On behalf of the commission, I would like to thank priests and members of religious orders for their commitment to serving the People of God. These selfless individuals should not be tarred with the same brush as the few who broke the sacred trust. It is through their service and example that many parents like me send their children to church, to hear Mass and to confess.
The Safeguarding Commission will not rest on the positive steps made in recent years. In the coming months, it will be publishing its updated safeguarding policies to ensure the Church remains at the forefront of best practice in creating a culture of safety.
As strong as policies may be, alone they are not enough. Organisations also need to have the right structures in place, there needs to be co-operation with statutory agencies, and service users should remain at the centre of all operations. The ability to protect the vulnerable in our society is also dependent on policymakers and resources available to organisations.
Child abuse is hugely underreported. According to official government estimates in the UK, only four per cent of child abuse cases are reported to the police. This means that in 96 per cent of cases, abusers continue living in society undetected.
In Malta, the creation of a register for people who are not allowed to work with children was progress back in 2011. However, people are only placed on the register after a conviction and at the court’s discretion. Bearing in mind the huge underreporting of abuse cases, the current system does not provide the necessary safeguards for children, parents and organisations.
A few months ago, the government made a very positive move when it started an inter-ministerial plan to work on a law similar to the Disclosure and Barring Service in England. Let’s hope this new legislation moves ahead with the urgency it deserves.
In 96 per cent of cases, abusers continue living in society undetected
The Safeguarding Commission strongly believes that the government must take the following steps to ensure our children and vulnerable adults are truly safeguarded:
It should be mandatory for organisations working with children or vulnerable adults to have effective safeguarding structures proportionate to the size of their organisation.
Professionals are one of the greatest supports and resources for victims. Laws should not criminalise professionals but empower them.
The government’s decision to appoint a Minister for the Elderly was commendable. The next step should be to appoint a Minister for Children exclusively dedicated to developing laws, policies and a culture focussed on children’s needs and rights.
I reiterate the need to set up an independent, non-politically appointed authority, similar to the Disclosure and Barring Service in England, tasked with managing the barred list register to ensure that any person known to pose a risk to children is placed on the register. This plan should also include a separate register to protect vulnerable adults.
Back in 2017, Minister Michael Farrugia (the previous Minister for the Family) hastily inaugurated the Children’s House. Four years later, we are still waiting for this important extension to the courts to start functioning. Victims of abuse need more concrete actions from policymakers and a judiciary ready to go the extra mile to support them in their journey towards justice and healing.
Lastly, the country needs an e-safety commissioner to empower all children and families in Malta to have a safer, more positive experience online.
My reply to my good friend was that it is vital that anyone who suffered abuse in the Church knows they will be listened to and supported if they seek help and that it is safe to report. I encourage all people who experienced or are experiencing harm to contact the police or to speak to a professional for assistance.
We can all play our part to create a safe culture in our society. Let’s work together to keep safeguarding children and vulnerable adults at the top of the agenda.
You can find more details on the Safeguarding Commission on www.safeguarding.mt or by following us on social media.
Andrew Azzopardi is head of the Church's Safeguarding Commission.
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