VATICAN CITY (CNS) — The Catholic Church has launched a new kind of “special forces” in the fight against child abuse.
Nineteen men and women from Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas became the first graduates awarded special certification in the safeguarding of minors — an initiative begun in Rome in 2016 to help dioceses, bishops’ conferences, religious orders and other church bodies excel in child protection.
The graduates — who are psychiatrists, theologians, canon lawyers, educators and child protection officers — were honored June 14 during a graduation ceremony at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University.
Pope Francis sent a personal letter for the occasion, praising the new graduates and telling them, “I wish you courage and patience; be brave and committed.”
The five-month, intensive program is run by the Center for Child Protection at the university’s Institute of Psychology and grew out of an e-learning program, but offers more active discussion and group work with onsite, face-to-face instruction by experts in a variety of fields.
The diploma course includes six in-depth interdisciplinary seminars on: defining the problem of sex abuse; children’s rights; the importance of sacred and safe spaces; the abuse of faith in abuse scandals; the liberating force of truth and justice; and how to help survivors and their families.
Now armed with new insights and specialized knowledge, the priests, religious men and women, and consecrated laypeople were ready to head home to improve the church’s response and beef up its role in protecting minors from sexual predators.
While some students were invited to present their projects to the guests assembled for the diploma ceremony, many of them mingled later in the university foyer, talking about their research and findings, and posing proudly for photographs in front of their poster presentations.
Marist Brother Fortune Chakasara of the Diocese of Chinhoyi, Zimbabwe, pointed to his large drawing of spear-wielding village leaders fending off a lion, snake and alligator — animals symbolizing HIV, poverty and dysfunctional families.
The warrior vs. predator images, he said, illustrated the importance of standing up to and protecting children from specific enemies in a way that would resonate with local villagers.
In her final project, Sister Damiana Kasoo tackled the culture of silence in Kenya and the pressures people feel to protect the family name from scandal.
A member of the Sisters of the Precious Blood, Sister Kasoo is a canon lawyer at the Kenyan bishops’ conference, which sent her and a colleague, also a canonist, to Rome for the course. The Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, which has been inviting mission dioceses to respond adequately to the problem of child abuse, funds scholarships for students from Africa, Asia and other mission territories for the diploma course.
Sister Kasoo told Catholic News Service that devising and educating others about “a prevention program will be all up to me. I will go back to deliver what I learned here.” She said she will create programs for all the dioceses in Kenya and then follow up in person, helping dioceses with training and implementing safeguard protections.
What struck her the most during the course, she said, was learning about “the pain the victims go through.” She only learned about it because the course included listening to and speaking with a survivor, who offered powerful firsthand testimony of the impact of abuse by church members.
Kenyan Father Bernard Malasi’s project looked at people’s “fear of authority,” which prevents them from reporting abuse or deceives them into accepting “payoffs” from the church, he said.
“They are poor so they take (the money) and stay quiet,” he told CNS.
Father Malasi works as the child protection coordinator in the Diocese of Malindi, and he said it was his bishop, Maltese-born Bishop Emanuel Barbara, who sent him to take the course.
The biggest obstacles Father Malasi said he sees in implementing protection policies remain: “denial — people say abuse doesn’t happen”; illiteracy; corruption, including in the judicial system; and poverty, which continues to be the motivating factor for some families to force their children into prostitution.
“The most important thing I learned is that children are part of the church, they are the future of the church. Abuse is killing them” emotionally, spiritually and developmentally, he said. “It kills their future” and leaves them with no hope.
Annette Schavan, German ambassador to the Vatican, praised “the courage of the Jesuits” at the Gregorian University for developing needed programs and resources for the protection of children from abuse.
“The time of concealment and silence had to come to an end,” said Schavan, the former federal minister of education and research.
“A new chapter in the history of the Catholic Church” has begun, she said, and such work to increase awareness “brings us hope.”