When someone close to us dies - a family member or a friend – we experience a grief that is often difficult to express. No two people experience it in exactly the same way, so nobody can really say: “I know exactly how you feel”. The one thing that often helps is that a bereavement is public to a greater or lesser extent. People gather around and we talk our way through it, even if it takes longer than we might expect.
A child who has been sexually abused is not always
immediately aware of having lost anything. Sooner or later, however,
sexual abuse results in an experience which is not unlike the grief
which accompanies a bereavement. Abuse undermines self-confidence and
the capacity to trust. The one who is innocent is often made to feel
guilty. The harm done to the child is physical, emotional and often
spiritual as well. For some, the loss of a sense of self-worth means
that it can be very difficult to think of oneself as being really loved
even by God. What makes the experience of abuse so much worse for many
children is that they have no words to express what has happened to
them. Many people carry this burden with them for years, for fear of
what will happen if they speak about it.
I know that in every
Church community, in every housing estate, in every workplace and in
every school there are survivors of sexual abuse, for whom the grief
remains very real, even years after the abuse has ended. Today, in
response to the invitation of Pope Francis, we pause for a few moments
to pray for them and to renew our commitment to building a Church and a
civil society in which every child can feel safe, loved and respected.
People who have experienced sexual abuse continue to struggle with the
reality of what has been done to them and need a safe environment in
which to tell their story. They are entitled to be heard with compassion
and respect. The Catholic Church is committed to providing that
opportunity through an independent confidential counselling service
“Towards Healing” and, for those who want it, a spiritual support
service “Towards Peace”.
In recent days, it seems that false
allegations of sexual abuse have been made against a number of innocent
men, as a deliberate strategy to undermine their credibility. This, in
itself, is a form of abuse and, in its own way, it is gravely sinful.
Not only do false allegations cause incredible pain to an innocent man
and his family, but they also cheapen the pain and the struggle for
justice of those who genuinely have been abused.
progress has been made over the past fifteen years in developing and
implementing policies and procedures for safeguarding children in the
Church. In each of our parishes, we have trained safeguarding
representatives who give their time on a voluntary basis in order to
ensure that best practice is followed. I am very grateful to them for
all that they do. If we have learnt anything from the experience of
recent years, however, it is that we cannot afford to be complacent. In
the final analysis, however, we all have a part to play.
recent days the media has once again made us aware of the hurt that was
caused to one very vulnerable child over many years and right into
adulthood, through what appears to have been a series of institutional
failures. There is evidence that the statutory bodies responsible for
the care of children are not adequately resourced. We have a great deal
of work to do in our society and the Church, precisely because of the
painful failures of the past, is now in a position to show leadership in
the area of safeguarding.
“Awareness” is one of the virtues
associated with the Buddhist tradition and I think we have something to
learn from them. We need to have our eyes and ears open to anything in
our community which might suggest that a child, or indeed a vulnerable
adult, is at risk of abuse.