Safeguarding: What could a Public Health approach do for the Church?

This article suggests a seven-point plan to address safeguarding in the Catholic Church, based on a Public Health approach. Jim McManus is a Director of Public Health, and Vice-Chair of the Healthcare Executive Group of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales

In a meeting with fellow Jesuits in 2018, Pope Francis defined sexual abuse as ‘the greatest desolation the Church is undergoing’. It would be easy to say that we are stuck in a cycle of repeated exposure of abuse of power, cover-up of allegations, systemic failure to deal with perpetrators, and denial of responsibility, all of which make the repetitious apologies by line-ups of bishops and superiors seem, at best, distasteful and, at worse, scandalous. The ongoing crisis of sexual abuse remains one of the most neuralgic issues for pastoral and theological practice today.

Massimo Faggioli wrote that ‘The abuse crisis has brought about the re-emergence of the narrative of the Church as systemically corrupted.’ And: ‘This has enormous consequences for the discourse on Church reform, which today has to deal, especially in countries hit particularly hard by the abuse crisis, with the issue of ecclesiodicy – a reasonable defence of the existence of the institutional Church.’1 In his analysis of reform in the Church, Yves Congar OP had said that there were hardly any abuses to reform.2 Faggioli argues that this is far from true, and the starting point for our thinking about Church reform now needs to be a very different one.

It would be easy to conclude that the Church’s response is deplorable, especially if the conclusions of the recent reviews of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) are anything to go by. But I believe that would be a mistake, and one of many mistakes we make and continue to make in our analysis of this ongoing crisis. A growing level of reports and analyses of Church responses to abuse, in adults as well as children, cite a lack of a systemic approach which understands a multiplicity of factors in the aetiology, prevention of and response to abuse.3

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