Child abuse in the spotlight

JOHN HARVEY

As the success of the Oscar-winning film Spotlight has returned the focus to the abuse scandals that rocked the Roman Catholic Church in the early 2000s, it has emerged that the archdiocese of Cape Town has promulgated a child safeguarding policy document to ensure all church officials dealing with children take every possible measure to prevent child abuse.

The document, the promulgation of which was decreed by Archbishop of Cape Town Stephen Brislin on October 1 last year, also aims to ensure the safety and well-being of all children, provide an instrument for the upholding of the rights of children as described in the preamble, and align church policies with the country’s laws.

The policy has been several years’ in the making, with three years devoted to policy formulation and six months to legal opinion. Digital distribution to clergy began in October, while hard-copy print

distribution to parish pastoral council chairs took place on November 21. Distribution of the official print versions of the policy is being rolled out.

The Tatler was alerted to the existence of the document by Father Harrie Hovers, of St Michael’s Catholic Church in Rondebosch, who said he hoped the stipulations and procedures would be applied “very conscientiously”.

In its foreward, Archbishop Brislin writes the church’s parishes and diocese should be a “home away from home” for children.

“This policy aims to strengthen that sense of accepting and belonging. It is a positive attempt to enhance the depth of the Christian community in our parishes. Unfortunately, occasionally things do go wrong, and thus provision is made for a procedure to deal with allegations of abuse, also ensuring that we comply with civil law at all times.”

A raft of procedural requirements are laid out in the 40-page document, including reporting abuse cases to the police, as well as reporting reasonable suspicion of the abuse of a child to a designated child protection organisation, provincial department, police official or contact person of the Catholic church.

In addition, the policy explains precisely how church personnel should be recruited, ensuring that questionable candidates are eliminated from the recruitment process.

Significantly, the policy insists that child safeguarding training should be applied to all clergy, religious, pastoral council members, extraordinary ministers of holy communion, catechists, youth leaders, sacristans, choir leaders, altar server trainers as well as anyone working with children and not in one of these categories.

The document further says: “In support of this standard, the archdiocese shall provide a budget for training, identify suitable trainers and arrange training opportunities.”

Spotlight tells the real-life story of how a team of investigative reporters from the Boston Globe newspaper in America uncovered widespread and systemic child sex abuse in the Boston area by Roman Catholic priests. Since the investigation, thousands of victims around the world have come forward to reveal similar abuses within the Catholic Church, as well as other denominations.

The film credits include references to child abuse at Cape Town diocese and parishes. Although it does not specify where these occurred, several cases involving Catholic priests were well-documented in the mid-2000s.

Belfast-born priest Father James McAuley, who worked for Redemptorist missionaries in Bergvliet, faced at least three specific charges of abuse, but was killed in a car accident three days after his first court appearance in 2006.

In 2005 another priest, Father Patrick Thornton, pleaded guilty to six counts of indecent assault and confessed to indecently assaulting two boys while chaplain at Christian Brothers College in Green Point. He too was killed in a car accident.

In 2011, Father Leslie Carter, a chaplain and English teacher at the Anglican St George’s Grammar School in Mowbray in the late 1950s, was jailed for three-and-a-half years in London for abusing young children.

In 2004, a victim who had been abused as a 12-year-old while on a boat trip from South Africa to the UK in the 1950s contacted the Metropolitan Police, leading to other charges being brought against him.

Father Harrie, who viewed Spotlight with interest, said he thought the film was “fair”. “It is hard to look at the abuses that occurred, but I don’t think it was an attempt to discredit the church in any way.

“Unfortunately, because of the abuse that occurred and how it came out there is a sense that it only happens in the Catholic church, but that is not the case. But that is the price you have to pay when atrocities like these occur.”

Rees Mann, director of the South African Male Survivors Of Sexual Abuse, said while he believed the scandal exposed by the Boston Globe, now generating renewed interest thanks to the success of the film, would drastically reduce child abuse in the church, it was unlikely that South African victims would come forward.

“Unlike the US, which is a litigant country, South Africans do not tend to lay criminal complaints or sue as much. Furthermore, under the old Sexual Offences Act it was stipulated that a male could not be raped. Because these abuses might have occurred years ago, they would not be considered rape. Those found guilty would get six months’ imprisonment at most,” Mr Mann said.