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Australian Archbishop Philip Wilson is at the forefront of the Holy See’s initiative.
BY EDWARD PENTINREGISTER CORRESPONDENT
1990s, finding ways to best prevent child abuse in the Church has been the aim
of the Anglophone Conference, an informal network of English-speaking bishops
meeting to share strategies for fighting abuse. This past June, it held its
10th formal meeting at the Vatican. One of its frequent participants has been
Archbishop Philip Wilson of Adelaide, Australia, president of the country’s
bishops’ conference. He has been lauded for the child protection efforts he has
implemented in his archdiocese.
Archbishop Wilson discussed his
approach, this year’s meeting, and the challenges bishops face in preventing
What areas has the Anglophone
Conference been examining this year?
This group of people has been
looking at the issues associated with child protection, sexual abuse, children
and young vulnerable adults for a long time.
The groups that have come from
bishops’ conferences around the world were initially from English-speaking
bishops’ conferences, which is why it’s called the “Anglophone” Conference. And
the reason they’ve been meeting has been to support and learn from one another
and experience all the different churches have had in response to these
What has been your contribution?
It has always occurred to me that in
response to this phenomenon there are four elements which we’ve had to take
into account. One is that we have to be able to deal effectively in responding
to the victims and their families, to look after them.
Secondly, we have to respond
properly to perpetrators too, to make sure those criminal matters are dealt
with by the proper authorities.
Thirdly, we have to be very careful
of our selection and formation of people for the priesthood and religious life
so that the people who have been put into those positions have been well sought
— and find out what’s going on in their lives — and are well trained for it.
We also have to do all that we can
to establish a child protection culture in the life of the Church. That’s been
my big aim in Adelaide — training people, making people in the Church aware of
their responsibilities, giving them insights into how they can best care for
children and protect them from this sort of behavior. We’ve felt we needed to
have a comprehensive program of selection of people involved with children,
that there will be police [background] checks to make sure we have accurate
information, that people who are involved in our works would also receive
child-protection training, giving them insight into children’s lives and what
they need to do. But also in giving them training and development of a child
protection culture so that the children are put in their proper place in the
community and cared for in every way.
More specifically, how have you
put those goals into practice in Adelaide?
We’ve established offices in our
diocese to carry forward these child protection initiatives, and I’ve
established a high-powered committee called the Child Protection Council.
Made up of people professionally
involved in children’s lives and their protection, they give me advice on what
we need to do in the diocese to set these things up properly. So they’ve come
up with the Child Protection Charter, which outlines commitments that we need
to make and the way those commitments are to be lived out.
That charter has been accepted by
the parish and all the different organizations of the diocese. Out of that
charter there are some practical decisions about what we’re going to do, and
one of them was the establishment of a checks system, a formation program, the
establishment of a network of child-protection officers in the diocese, which
we’re working on now.
Some priests in various parts of
the world are concerned about such measures. They say that while the steps
taken are rightly child-centered, too little attention is paid to priests and
their well-being. As you know, not a few priests have been falsely accused.
What measures have you put in place that protect priests from these situations?
In Australia, we have a system
towards healing, which is how we deal with these allegations of abuse. That’s
not something unique to the Adelaide Archdiocese. It’s something all bishops
are committed to.
We are very conscious and reflect on
how that works — that false accusations can occur, and people need to be
protected. But I would say, as well, we have to be careful how we respond to
these things for the sake of the clergy themselves.
You’ve got to get good procedures in
place to protect their name, too. If people are falsely accused, having a good
system of evaluation of allegations is to their benefit as well. If you can
arrive at the end of the process and say, “Look, we’ve done everything
correctly here, and we’ve been able to prove there’s no substance to the
allegation,” then that’s the best protection a priest can have.
Being a diocesan bishop myself, I
know exactly the dilemmas that are involved in that and, when you face these
elements, how carefully you must support the priest and at the same time pursue
what needs to happen in order to arrive at a just resolution.
Others say such measures foster
a “culture of suspicion,” that a priest in some countries, for example, can no
longer take a group of children on a trip on his own. Would you say there’s a
danger of these measures constraining a priest’s pastoral activities?
What I’d say is there have been
priests who have abused children, and they’ve used all sorts of means to be
able to do that, which has then immediately clouded the whole issue for
everybody else. So, therefore, the best protection is for people to follow the
proper procedures that have been put in place.
I don’t think there’d be anyone
like-minded about these issues who would want to step aside from the proper
guidelines that allow them to authentically be able to participate in looking
after children. So I think we’ve learned a lot from our very painful experience
of seeing what’s happened.
We are in a new world where people
have to have proper procedures so there’s no chance of anyone being suspected
or of being falsely accused, or worse still, being given the opportunity to
What are your reflections on the
situation in the United States?
The United States is a very complex
country, much larger than our country or the Archdiocese of Adelaide, and I
think that people in the U.S. have been involved in the formation of their
programs, have been very serious in the way they’ve responded to it [the abuse
I think [they are] like all of us;
we keep reflecting on what we’re doing, how can we improve, how can we look at
these things in a new way as we move on.
Are you hopeful the Church is
over the worst?
I’m really hopeful we’re over the
worst because I can’t imagine anything being worse than what we’ve been
through. But I think what we have to understand is that we’re living in a culture
where the whole pattern of pedophilia and other sexual abuse is very strong,
and what is going on in the culture around us will affect us in the Church, as
well. So we have to be really vigilant about it and very careful.
Edward Pentin writes