By Sr Bernadette Mary Reis, fsp
Hundreds of people predominantly from North and South America registered to join the International Safeguarding Conference (ICS) online on Friday. They represented 70 countries, making it an international webinar.
This was the first in a series of webinars on the theme “A Safer Church”. Participants heard the experiences of five people who reflected on Safeguarding during Covid-19 from a victim’s perspective.
Children and Covid-19
Judi Fairholm, Senior Expert, Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action, presented the impact of Covid-19 on children.
Their world has been turned upside down in many ways. Exposure to Covid-19 is not the only danger they face. Some no longer have access to other adults in schools and other support systems who advocated for them. They are experiencing greater vulnerability to violence at home, and are open to a higher risk of online exposure to people who prey on children. Those caught in the web of child labor will most likely increase with the economic downturn.
Judy reminded the Safeguarding professionals participating in the webinar about some priorities, which included providing continual care and protection to children in vulnerable situations, creating safety plans, engaging government to protect children, the need for safeguarding professionals to work together, to document what is happening and to build on protective factors that exist in every facet of children’s lives.
Safeguarding focus in Scotland
Tina Campbell, National Safeguarding Coordinator for the Episcopal Conference of Scotland and on steering committee of ICS, pointed out that Pope Francis himself spotlighted the suffering of those suffering domestic violence during a time of lockdown.
She reminded everyone that those in the safeguarding ministry will need to be prepared to deal with those issues once people begin to emerge from lockdown. She acknowledged that because of the pandemic, safeguarding will need to be able to respond to new challenges. This means developing resources for those trying to remain connected to their faith during lockdown, as well as advising Church authorities on the safe reception of the Sacraments.
“So much is unkown”, Tina emphasized, but the imperative that victims come first and that resources be dedicated to the most vulnerable needs to remain a priority.
Child Protection Consultant Barbara Thorpe spoke from the perspective of those who have been grappling for years with abuse suffered at the hands of clergy in the Church.
She shared a letter from one survivor who described the conditions of being in rehabilitation, which is very similar to the lockdown we have been experiencing due to Covid-19. We now have a glimpse of their experience. Yet their experience was silenced and they have had to deal with the consequences in isolation.
Barbara said that these survivors possess a “wisdom” that can now help us deal with the residual effects of our own experiences of being locked down. She encouraged those safeguarding professionals present not to let the lockdown impede their efforts but that it be an impetus to discover new opportunities to open their hearts to “listen to them, to honor their stories and to seek renewed trust on the path of healing”.
Jesuits respond in Africa
Beatrice Mumbi, Safeguarding Coordinator for Jesuit Conference of Africa and Madagascar (JCAM), presented how the Jesuits have responded to the issue of safeguarding during the coronavirus pandemic in Africa.
Their focus shifted from parish and school settings to family settings because that is where children are now. She emphasized how abuse is “aggravated in families who are no longer able to provide basic needs”. Thus, JCAM’s safeguarding efforts are aimed at providing basic necessities to families in need to lower the risk of abuse within the family.
In response to the need for alternative educational programs, the Jesuits in Zambia are now providing education programs through the radio. They are developing messages directed toward children regarding the Covid-19 pandemic.