April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. I would like to share a little bit about the ongoing attention we give to creating safe environments. Since 2002, with the scandal of clergy sexual misconduct reported in the newspapers, this topic has been part of our daily life. The Church in Canada and the USA, including dioceses and religious orders, has learned much in these two decades. We all have policies that have been updated at least three times, and we are in the process of updating them again. We have acknowledged the lifelong suffering people have endured because they were abused by Salesian priests and brothers. We have faced the shame of our failure to protect young people. Some of the states removed the statute of limitations for abuse of minors. This has resulted in thousands of new cases being brought against dioceses and groups in the Church in the USA. In our province, we are dealing with numerous active cases at the moment.
At one point in this crisis, people asked, "When will this be over?" Few people ask that question anymore. Now we ask, "What can we do to help the survivor/victim?" and "How can we change our attitudes and behaviors so the abuse will not happen again?" Here are a few things we have learned:
- We must give priority to the victims. We want to be instruments of hope and healing for them as much as possible, even when the abuse is alleged to have occurred decades ago. For example, we have an allegation of abuse that is alleged to have occurred 70 years ago. It is hard to investigate such a case. We can only imagine the pain this man has carried for so long. By giving priority to the survivor/victim, we can be less defensive; this can lead to real conversion.
- We must work together, as Salesians, with the local Church and other organizations. By respecting the autonomy of each legal corporation and its legal rights, we can give a better response if we work together.
- Most abuse can be prevented. Following best practices in protecting young people, which is almost exactly the Preventive System, we can keep young people safe in our Salesian environments. With this insight, we also recognize the valuable gift and relevance of Don Bosco and the Salesian charism in the Church today.
- The young people and their families are partners /protagonists in creating safe environments. They receive training in respecting healthy boundaries in relationships and can keep us honest and attentive to our rules. What they learn in a Salesian setting also helps to keep them safe in other settings. The digital world, where young people spend so much time, is changing faster than our response. Here again, the young adults will have to be the protagonists in educating other young people (and us) about how to use new media safely.
- There are cases of false accusations. We have learned to work to protect the rights and good names of the accused.
- We don’t have to live in fear. The young people still need to hear the Good News. We are being called to walk the journey of faith and life with the young. We respond with humility, well aware of our frailty and failures, but also with zeal because of the urgency of the mission and with hope because God is good.
There are other aspects of the sexual abuse crisis we can consider, and not all of it is bad news.
- In many ways, the Church and Salesian settings are the safest places for young people to be. We have policies and processes to select employees and volunteers, train them, and supervisor them. We know how to respond if there is a suspicion of misconduct.
- Today, young people do not know a Church without the scandal. It has always been part of their experience of life in the Church. And still young people feel called to become Salesians. This is truly the grace of God.
It is very painful to face our sin, the loss of good reputation, not having any moral authority because we have not lived what we professed. To assist in our ongoing conversion, I ask each community to set aside some time this month for a prayer of lament and repentance. Two sample prayer services are available from the province.
From a place of darkness, we feel moved by hope. We know Christ, who makes all things new.
Fr. Tim Zak, SDB