Opinionista Rev Lawrence Mduduzi Ndlovu 4 February 2016

Sexual abuse and misconduct can be prevented through safeguarding

Many cases of sexual misconduct and general abuse, regrettably, do not find their way through justice systems. The conversation about why many such cases are never reported is deeply nuanced. Besides resting all our hopes on the justice system, there is another area which rests entirely on the hands of communities, business, faith-based groupings and all other human congregations – the area of safeguarding.

Every so often allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct appear in the public arena. These cases, like that of Bill Cosby and our very own Marius Fransman, remind many of the amount of work and real conversation that must still take place in society. Even though it is the duty of the courts to determine guilt or innocence, it would be unintelligible that conversations about such issues are not discussed with the fear of allotting judgement on the accused.

The subject of sexual abuse and misconduct elicits in many people the deep desire for justice, as it should. The completion of justice for many people rests on the outcomes of court cases. Many cases of sexual misconduct and general abuse do not, regrettably, find their way through justice systems; they are never reported to the police. The conversation about why many such cases are never reported is deeply nuanced and deserves its own opportunity of interrogation. However besides resting all our hopes on the systems of justice (police and the judiciary) there is another area which rests entirely on the hands of communities, business, faith-based groupings and all other human congregations – the area of safeguarding.

The word “safeguarding” has come to represent the desire, through formal and informal initiatives, to make communities, companies, churches and many such places safe, especially for children and vulnerable adults. Safety in this regard goes far beyond typical notions of security that are related to more familiar crimes like stealing, robberies and so on. Safeguarding is fundamentally about making places safe from abuse of all kinds, and is the responsibility of all people. Government can and must through legislation make sure that all human congregating institutions, and those who accept or apply for any form of public work are screened for prior crimes, especially if they are going to be working with children and vulnerable adults. In addition, governments must, through legislation, demand that all institutions, from business to churches to schools and so on have in place clear protocols for when cases of abuse emerge, be it among colleagues or between those who hold any place of authority.

Having had some proximity, even though distant, through observing the sexual abuse scandal in my church, the Catholic Church, it has become apparent to me, and to many of us in the church, that proper protocols with regards, especially, to sexual misconduct are necessary. In recent years the push to have these put in place in every diocese and parish in the world has been intensified. Every church ought to have a designated person who is the go-to person with regards to any suspicion of abuse. That person is not a priest. Investigating teams comprising lay people, psychologists, lawyers, and so on, have been established, and greater cooperation with civil processes is as important as the ecclesiastical processes.

In addition to this, every person who is preparing to work in the Church, especially priests, would have gone through the safeguarding course just so that they are familiar with it. The church in southern Africa has been leading in having our protocols exist for a long time now. Our protocols have been used to help others outside the country to establish their own protocols for safeguarding. These systems should work seamlessly, and most of the time, and they do. There are some hurdles here and there, because every case is different.

That does not mean that there are cases every week, but in an institution of so many workers, from priests, to lay ministers, to other staff in administration and many others, things do come up. Some cases are lacking in truth and others are real. The church is not perfect, but at least the efforts are there and are beginning to yield fruits. Even though the church is highly criticised for what it has done or what it has failed to do in the past, we should never be fooled to think that sex abuse is a problem with the church. It is a human problem. With all these cases emerging in almost all human institutions, it is clear that what was demanded of the church must be demanded of all institutions. Every institution must have clear safeguarding protocols. Those protocols should include a person from outside the establishments, in order to minimise victims having to contend with complaining about a person to that person’s friend. It is not enough to say that policies are in place; those policies must be effectively implemented and encourage the minimising of intimidation, and a situation where a friend is forced to cover-up for another friend.

As a student priest I was once assigned to work in the chaplaincy at University College London Hospital in the United Kingdom. I was surprised when I received a notice from the human resources department requesting that I should go for, what is termed in the UK a Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check. That check was meant to screen if I have ever had any complaints or criminal records against me especially concerning children and vulnerable adults. Until my DBS was cleared I was not allowed to engage in any chaplaincy work without someone accompanying me. That policy applies to all persons and is the same in schools and other institutions.

On another occasion, the parish I assisted in was approached by parole officers who had been working with the safeguarding person in the diocese to notify the parish that a sexual offender was being released because he had completed his term in prison, and he was to be present in the area, and might be attending Mass in our parish church. For this reason an arrangement had to be reached so that this person did not find another opportunity to recommit the crimes he had committed to minors in the past.

This does not mean that rehabilitation does not exist but rather a confirmation of importance of creating safe environments. The parish priest had to take into account which Mass this man could attend, and which one he could not attend because of the high numbers of minors. For example, he could not attend the family Mass because that is the Mass that had a lot of children. He could attend other Masses where the numbers were low, and where he would be easily identifiable. The parish priest was coached on how to monitor the situation, plus the gentlemen was always accompanied by a family member.

These two examples, even though they are both cases in the United Kingdom, point to the scope and amount of work that needs to be done in order to take safeguarding seriously. It is rather alarming that in South Africa many unchecked individuals work in public, be it as people who drive the mini cab that take our children to school to some of the teachers and so on. This does not mean that parents must be paranoid and trust no one. What it means is that there are actions that are within the control of society in order to make it difficult for offenders to prey on vulnerable persons.

There are, of course, consequences when safeguarding is over emphasised. For us in the church it is acutely felt. On the 50th Anniversary of Regina Mundi Catholic Church, Minister Nomvula Mokonyane reflected about a time when she was young, and when her mother, as punishment for one reason or another, would tell her to go to the church and tell the priest to give her some job to do. That type of relationship, in that organic type of manner, has now been eroded and is no longer really encouraged. As a priest, if a young person, in particular a minor, walked into a room, and I happened to be alone in the room, I would leave the room because of the impression it might create, if someone saw me in the room alone with a minor.

Perhaps the saddest in the other side of the safeguarding conversation is how many priests, especially when invited to family homes would not touch or even give any attention to children. Many parents have become uneasy about priests even if they do not articulate it, one can see it and even sense it. They cannot be blamed because there has been a compromise in the trust relationship that existed before. These examples are greatly generalised and maybe do not apply much in the South African context, but the tension exists. This other dimension to the safeguarding conversation is in fact a whole separate conversation in itself.

By alluding to it, however, one hopes to begin a more comprehensive conversation about safeguarding in South Africa. DM

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