Since the 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 child abuse.
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 matters.
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 offend themselves.
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 crisis].
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