Building a safer Church

‘As a community, everybody wants our churches to be safe’

‘Safeguarding training is of vital importance for us as it increases our understanding of how to respond to and prevent such terrible crimes and it helps us in the essential ministry of responding to victims and survivors.’

These were the words of the Archbishop of Liverpool, Malcolm McMahon, during a day of no little significance at LACE on 27 November. It was a safeguarding training day for the clergy of the diocese, and it brought together approximately 140 priests to the conference centre on the edge of Sefton Park where they received insights into the long-lasting trauma that any kind of abuse brings for victims and survivors, learned about sources of support, and heard about the important work of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA).

The day was opened by Archbishop Malcolm and Alexandra Griffiths, safeguarding coordinator for the Archdiocese. Archbishop Malcolm acknowledged the devastating impact of abuse, and how important it was for the Church community to act upon the findings of IICSA to complement the existing safeguarding policies and practice. ‘We in the Archdiocese of Liverpool are committed to the work of safeguarding to protect all vulnerable people in our community and to walk alongside all who are suffering,’ he added.

The first speaker of the day was Father Dominic Allain, a priest from the Archdiocese of Southwark who is the international pastoral director of Grief to Grace, a retreat programme for victims of abuse. Fr Dominic began by exploring the many ways in which abuse manifests itself as trauma, both at the time and afterwards, with its enduring impact in later life. He explored the emotional and psychological effects of abuse, and the ways in which trauma manifests itself subsequently – citing the work of a renowned expert in the field of trauma, Bessel van der Kolk, whose work 'The Body Keeps the Score' explains how the human body stores the memory of secrets that are too deep and painful to speak of.

Fr Dominic highlighted that abuse is fundamentally against the teachings of the Bible, and discussed the importance of spiritual healing alongside psychological healing. Grief to Grace is a five-day programme that takes place in a safe environment with the support of trained professionals. It uses therapeutic psychological tools (group activity, discussion, cognitive restructuring and grief work) and is grounded in the scriptures, sacraments and prayer to give healing to victims and survivors.

The afternoon session featured contributions from members of the IICSA team. The first speakers were Ella O’Brian, head of the northwest office, and Liam Moran, head of processes and quality assurance. Ella and Liam explained their work regarding the Truth Project, which allows victims and survivors of child sexual abuse to share their experiences in a supportive and confidential setting. Through this sharing of experiences, victims and survivors can make a crucial contribution to the work of the inquiry, and are helping to influence and shape the recommendations that will come out of it. They noted that thousands of people had already come forward to explain their stories, and stressed that any victims or survivors were still welcome to contact them.

Peter Saunders and Daniel Wolstencroft from the IICSA Victims and Survivors’ Consultative Panel then explained their involvement. Saunders told of the abuse he had suffered in childhood, and how this did not come to light until later in life when he was struggling with depression and self-esteem problems. The realisation that he was not alone, and that many adult survivors were similarly troubled by childhood events, led him to set up the National Association for People Abused in Childhood (NAPAC), a charity which he has now been running successfully for 20 years. NAPAC provides support for adult survivors of all types of childhood abuse, including physical, sexual, emotional abuse or neglect; it also offers training and information to professionals.

Daniel Wolstencroft shared his experience of abuse during his childhood, and how it was repeatedly missed by the adults around him who failed to exercise their ‘professional curiosity’ about his poor behaviour. He went on to establish Shatter Boys UK and Shatter Girl UK, which are peer-support and campaign groups for male and female survivors. He spoke of the importance of teaching the whole of our society, as well as our children and young people, to have more open conversations about body safety and boundaries in order to normalise this aspect of a child’s safety, as we would do with their physical safety.

Following the IICSA presentations, a panel of speakers was convened which also included Adele Downey, chief executive of the Disclosure and Barring Service, and Suzanne Smith, director of safeguarding at the Disclosure and Barring Service. The clergy were encouraged to ask questions of the panel and one of the most important messages that came out of this session was in response to the question ‘What is the one thing that we should take back to our parishes?’. The answer was to ask questions of people, to talk to professionals about worries, and to not assume that abuse is only something that occurred in the past.

Following the conference, both the speakers and clergy members contacted the Archdiocese to express how positive they had found the day. One comment was that it was ‘so good to see that your diocese is taking these issues so seriously and proactively’; another offered ‘thanks for such an amazingly moving and informative day of safeguarding – best I've ever had on the whole traumatic issue’.

Alexandra Griffiths was equally grateful for the contributions of those who came to LACE to address the clergy. She said: ‘The Archdiocese of Liverpool would like to thank all of the speakers who made such informative and compelling presentations to the clergy.’

The Archdiocese’s safeguarding coordinator added that the clergy training day was just one step taken in recent months following her appointment in the summer. ‘We also had a safeguarding conference at the beginning of September for our parish reps, so we are looking to do more along those lines, partly to educate people but partly as well so they understand what structures and policies and processes we have in place, and that we’re adhering to legislation. When we do get a complaint in, it’s taken seriously and is dealt with within those policies and procedures. People don’t always understand there are stringent guidelines in place which we do adhere to.

‘What I’ve found is that, as a community, everybody wants our churches to be safe,’ she continued, ‘and there’s a really good sense that everybody’s working towards the same goal with safeguarding which I’ve found hugely reassuring.’

• If anyone has been affected by the issues raised in this article please contact Alexandra Griffiths, safeguarding coordinator, on 0151 522 1043 or safeguarding@rcaol.co.uk. Alternatively, if you would like to know more about how safeguarding in the Catholic Church works, and the policies and procedures already in place, please visit https://www.csas.uk.net/procedures-manual/