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New standards for a child-safe Church



Trigger warning: sexual abuse, sexual assault, child abuse.

Eighteen months after the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse delivered its groundbreaking report, and nine months after the bishops and religious leaders responded to that report, Catholic Professional Standards Limited (CPSL) has published the National Catholic Safeguarding Standards (Safeguarding Standards).

A little boy and his older brother protect themselves from the rain with an umbrella. (Estersinhache fotografía / Getty)Together, the ten standards published today provide the framework for each Catholic entity, ministry and organisation across the Catholic Church in Australia to place child safety at the core of how it plans, thinks and acts.

The royal commission in its final report outlined ten child safe standards for organisations. This work has been built upon by the Australian Human Rights Commission in its articulation of the National Principles for Child Safe Organisations, which were adopted by COAG in February of this year.

The Safeguarding Standards released today for the Catholic Church take the National Principles and apply them in a practical sense to the operations of the Church, as well as adopting many specific recommendations from the royal commission to the Catholic Church.

The royal commission exposed many gaps in church activities. These gaps were especially evident at a local level, in parishes for example, and in ministries where there has been no external oversight or there has been poor understanding or implementation of what is needed in an organisation to protect children.

The establishment of CPSL in 2016 signalled a concrete and practical response by the Catholic Church to the revelations of the royal commission and it provides an international blueprint for reform of the Church's approach to safeguarding. The specific brief for CPSL is to develop nationally consistent standards that increase accountability and transparency, to audit the performance of church authorities against those standards and to publish the results.

CPSL is functionally independent of Church leadership, we speak with our own voice, we make our own decisions and we act as we see fit and in the best interests of children and vulnerable adults.


"Preventing child abuse, in any form, must be at the core of the Church's mission."


Protecting children and vulnerable adults in an organisational context is multi-faceted and requires active commitment and constant vigilance. Safeguarding is everyone's responsibility and requires that each individual in an organisation understands why safeguarding is important, how the organisation goes about it, what their individual responsibilities are to act and speak up, and how the organisation will respond when something is raised.

A child safe organisation consciously and publicly commits to putting the safety and wellbeing of children at the centre of values, thoughts and actions. To be effective, safeguarding requires genuine engagement with, listening, valuing and responding to children — respecting and upholding their rights and inherent dignity. The Safeguarding Standards strive to embed these practices within the Catholic Church. CPSL is about building capacity, ensuring vigilance and maintaining the Church's focus on the rights of children.

After nearly two years in this role listening to and engaging with all sorts of organisations across the Catholic Church, I have seen and heard evidence of great work, significant change and deep understanding and commitment in some areas. I have also sadly seen and heard people and organisations who are hesitant, resistant, denying, minimising and struggling to make the change of heart and mind required to drive changes that are needed. As a Church community, and indeed as an Australian community, we must always put the best interests and safety of children at the forefront of considerations and actions. Preventing child abuse, in any form, must be at the core of the Church's mission.

In addition to the Safeguarding Standards, CPSL is rolling out a comprehensive learning and development strategy to assist leaders to better understand and implement their responsibilities to safeguard. The CPSL audit approach has been developed to promote accountability and transparency. It focuses not just on compliance, but also culture change, capacity building and knowledge sharing so that Catholic entities are best-placed and supported to improve practices for the safety of children and vulnerable adults. Data gathered from the audits will assist CPSL to highlight systemic risks, identify new and emerging areas of risk, and support the treatment of these risks through capacity building, targeted resources and support.

The first audits against the National Catholic Safeguarding Standards are underway. It is anticipated the first audit reports will be published around the middle of this year.

Our next steps include continuing to work closely with church leaders and organisations to ensure the standards are understood and are applied as intended, work closely with state, territory and national regulators and other organisations to champion the safety and wellbeing of all children, as well as commencing work to broaden the current framework to cover the safeguarding of vulnerable adults.

With the release of the Safeguarding Standards today, the foundation has been laid for a more diligent, evidence-based approach to safeguarding the children who come into contact with the Catholic Church through its many ministries and services.


For confidential counselling and support call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800respect.org.au



Sheree LimbrickSheree Limbrick is CEO of Catholic Professional Standards Limited.

Main image: Estersinhache fotografía / Getty

Topic tags: Sheree Limbrick, clergy sexual abuse



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Existing comments

Sheree the RC was an eye opener for all Australians and the existing problems have not been addressed. "Up to 15% of priests in some dioceses were alleged perpetrators between 1950 and 2015, with abusers most prevalent in the dioceses of Sale and Sandhurst in Victoria, Port Pirie in South Australia, and Lismore and Wollongong in New South Wales. The numbers were even worse in some national Catholic orders. By far the worst was the order of the St John of God Brothers, where 40% of religious brothers are believed to have abused children."Guardian 6/2/17. Catholics are 6 times more likely to abuse and these perpetrators have yet to be removed. The RC revealed 4,444 claimants alleged incidents of child sexual abuse in 4,756 reported claims to Catholic Church authorities and at least 1,880 suspected abusers from 1980 to 2015. Most were Catholic priests and religious brothers and 62 percent of the survivors who told the commission they were abused in religious institutions were abused in a Catholic facility. Guardian 6/2/17. Italy, the home of the church, only one priest is in custody. In Australia only 100 Catholic religious have been charged. Foxes are still in charge of the henhouse.

Francis Armstrong | 30 May 2019  

Thank you, Sheree - a very professional and readable explanation of this part of CPSL’s work. It gives evidence of the transparency which the Church is demanding of her leaders in so many areas of our community’s life.

Joan Seymour | 30 May 2019  

It's great that you are setting standards Sheree, but who is policing them? Where are the audit committees independent of the hierarchy and administration?

Ginger Meggs | 30 May 2019  

It’s essential these matters are addressed. However such irony! The church who once claimed their values from Jesus Christ now finds its source from governments and Royal Commissions.

John Whitehead | 31 May 2019  

Sheree, I have read the document draft 2, dated November 2018. Is there a later draft? My response is based on three decades of teaching in the Catholic system, now retired and about the same length of time in lay ministry as an Acolyte, still in ministry. I have to profess that I am sceptical of any change happening in my lifetime, based on past experience. As others have commented, the Church has many sources of inspiration for good governance, including Divine Scripture , but sadly the historical record shows a failure to act on them and worse a history of denial , protection and coverup. While the Church can claim to be divinely inspired, the humaneness of the clergy and the curse of clericalism, in which the Faithful have played a role for centuries, will sadly ensure that such abuses will continue as long as the perpetrators can get away with their illicit practices. As Francis Armstrong observes ;"the foxes are still in charge of the henhouse". I hate to write this but just how independent of the Church hierarchy is your organization, because I find it difficult to believe that the church leadership would let go of their power and control so readily. Why is it a limited company? Finally it is so sad that it has taken a Royal Commission to expose the 'sins' of the Church to its followers and the world at last It will take a generation, if not many generations to restore faith in the institutional church and its leadership.

Gavin O'Brien | 31 May 2019  

Legislation and enforcement are indeed necessary, but it would be a new version of the Socratic fallacy to think they suffice to redress evil; the metanoia called for in Tracey Edstein's ES article (30/5) goes to the heart of the matter.

John RD | 31 May 2019  

The comments raise important questions about accountability and oversight. The CPSL website answers these questions very specifically in the FAQ section. (CPSLtd.org.au). If I’ve read correctly, CPSL will audit dioceses and other religious organisations for adherence to the professional standards originally suggested by the Royal Commission. They will publish details of any organisations that fail to meet these standards. (It’s worth reading the whole thing).

Joan Seymour | 31 May 2019  

The next wave of child sex abuse is expected to come from international priests (on religious worker visas) and its coverup by church leadership. International clergy makes up 60% of clergy in regional Australia. CEO, Sheree Limbrick told a recent Catholic Child Safeguarding conference that most of Australia's international priests come from countries (India, Philippines, Tanzania, etc.) which did not have any procedures for criminal history checks. She said,'To assess international priests, the Australian Catholic church relies on character references.' When question over this matter, Ms Limbrick raised her own concerns stating, ’Why would they send us their best (clergy)?’. In a recent international clerical sex abuse matter, the Diocesan Bishop sent the abusive priest on the next plane home (out of the country), failed to report the sex abuse to Police or the Federal Government agency managing Religious Worker Visas. (Penalties apply for not reporting criminal actions within five years). It makes many parents realise a National Catholic Safeguarding Standards Policy will not solve or end clerical sex abuse in Catholic Schools or churches. The implementation of the Royal Commission into Institutional Response to Child Abuse recommendations and new civil laws may go a lot further. The CPSL director should be campaigning for mandatory reporting law for clergy in Queensland and the implementation of the Royal Commission into Child Sex Abuse recommendations.

P.Boylan | 31 May 2019  

Worthy. Laudable. Aspirational. This all may ameliorate superficial practice. May. But this will never be enough. (Has anyone watched ‘The Keepers’?) For those interested in the possibility of a radical, transformational agenda may I suggest a reading of James Carroll’s article in The Atlantic 1.6.19? ‘Abolish the Priesthood’?

Fiona Winn | 01 June 2019  

We've been waiting for a metanoia for over two millennia John RD. Isn't it wishful thinking to hope that one will come along just now and relieve us of the need to use the only tools that we have to hand - rules, structure, organisation, dispersal of power, independent oversight, and accountability, etc.?

Ginger Meggs | 02 June 2019  

The need for, and Christ's call to, metanoia is a perennial one, Ginger, given human fallenness which is part of our human condition.

John RD | 03 June 2019  

ES readers interested in an alternative viewpoint to James Carroll's "Abolish the Priesthood" recommended by Fiona Winn will find one by Michael Winters in the National Catholic Reporter, 22/5/2109.

John RD | 03 June 2019  

Of course it is, John RD, I agree completely with you on the perennial need for metanoia. And on the ubiquity of the 'human condition'. But abuses of power will not go away by themselves as long as the structures, systems and processes that facilitate and protect those abuses and abusers remain in place. So, in the context of this article, I would suggest that it is not just a framework of standards but also structures, systems and processes that are essential. And as for the standards, those that I've seen today are really designed to control the relatively little people - the teacher, the priest, the operator at the coal face. Where are the standards, and the independent and transparent compliance and control systems for the managers -the bishops, archbishops, heads of orders, cardinals, etc. - the ones who are arguably more culpable for the crimes because they had both the knowledge and the power to do something positive and deliberately chose to do otherwise. For example, are the ACBC and the CRA about to sign up with CPSL to have their own standards audited and monitored? If not, why not?

Ginger Meggs | 03 June 2019  

Thanks Fiona and John RD for the references. I've read both articles and find Carroll a lot more persuasive than Winters and, incidentally, a lot less abusive.

Ginger Meggs | 03 June 2019  

Ginger, without a change of heart, wouldn't revisions of "structures, systems and processes" be an exercise in facadalism and mere legalism? Social mechanisms have their genesis in human conception and willing.

John RD | 04 June 2019  

When Australian Bishops return from their Bishops Ad Limina visit and meeting with Pope Francis in Rome this month, it would be necessary for both the Bishops and their religious charity, Catholic Professional Standards Limited to explain to survivors of clerical sex abuse, parishioners and all taxpayers about the new or possible changes to the interpretation of the pontifical secret. The pontifical secret has allowed reporting child abuse to civil authorities where the state law requires it. (i.e.No law mandatory reporting law for clergy in Queensland and most of the world). The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) stated that the pontifical secret 'does not in any way inhibit a bishop or a religious leader from reporting instances of child sex abuse to civil authorities.' This conflicts with the findings of the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. The five year long Royal Commission found the pontifical secret still applied where there were no applicable reporting laws and recommended its abolition. It is not clear on what basis the ACBC made this new statement promoted and written into the Catholic Professional Standards Limited new National Catholic Safeguarding Standards: Implementation Guide Standards: 1-10 (6.4.) It contradicts canon law clauses 39 and 40 which impose mandatory reporting to police for the laity but not clergy. It seems that Bishops and religious leaders who follow these new CPSL standards do not have the force of canon law. Have Australian Bishops been given dispensation from Rome that has not yet been made public? In the new official interpretation, it is possible that the pontifical secret does no longer prevent reporting to police but is possibly otherwise intact for keeping such secrets from everyone else? A significant marketing budget to promote the 'National Catholic Safeguarding Standards' and polished nationwide presentations will not provide secure and trusted protection to safeguard future children. Royal Commissions and Internal inquiries across the world have demonstrated that the Vatican's canon law system of coverup led to more than 100,000 children worldwide being abused by clergy and a secret legal system that shields paedophile priests from criminal trials. Australian survivors and taxpayers who funded the Royal Commission into Institutional Response to Child Sex Abuse require an explanation.

P.Boylan | 18 June 2019  

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  • 30 May 2019

There are guidelines, rules and laws galore. None of these stopped clergy and church personnel abusing children, or necessarily led those in authority to act. The community could therefore be forgiven a certain scepticism. Legislative changes, stronger governance and mission statements mean little without a change of heart.