Focus Turns to Religious Orders

In a continuing effort to protect children, much of the attention of the Catholic Church has been on how dioceses and national bishops’ conferences have been responding to victims and protecting children. Religious orders and congregations are sometimes left out of that picture, even though most of the more than 300,000 Catholic schools and orphanages around the world are run by religious brothers and sisters. Now the focus is turning to those religious orders of men and women.

Pope Francis last year authorized the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to investigate and judge claims of “abuse of office” by bishops who allegedly failed to protect minors and vulnerable adults from sexual abuse. But that form of censure “wasn’t extended to superior generals, and it should be,” said Father John Fogarty, superior general of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit.

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Canon Law and the complementary Vatican norms regarding this field “refer only to clergy”—bishops, priests and deacons—said Hans Zollner, S.J., president of the Center for Child Protection at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University.

Each religious order or congregation establishes its own policies, he said. And while some may have a set of guidelines for their whole congregation, in others each province or region is in charge of setting up guidelines.

Father Fogarty said his first priority after being elected superior of the Spiritans in 2012 was to establish comprehensive guidelines and then ask each of the order’s provinces and regions to draw up procedures that would protect children and respect local laws and customs.

Since each local superior of his order is responsible for his territory, Father Fogarty said he uses his role “to work with the superiors” and get them all “on the same wavelength.”Not everyone in every part of the world is “at the same point” in recognizing the need to protect and care for children and survivors; “our job is to get them there, put pressure on them to produce adequate policies, procedures, hold workshops” and use every “means at our disposal” to spread awareness and resources.

The need to have adequate protection policies and procedures in place for religious orders is urgent because they are present in so many countries around the globe, said Mark Vincent Healy, an advocate in Ireland for survivors of child sexual abuse. For example, of the 48 Spiritan priests noted in Ireland’s National Board for Safeguarding Children’s audit in 2012 as accused of abuse in Ireland, half of them had also served in other countries, including the United States, Canada, Sierra Leone and Kenya, Healy has said.

In Healy’s case, the Spiritan priest who had abused him at a school the order ran in Ireland was transferred to a Spiritan-run school in Sierra Leone, where he allegedly abused again before being convicted in Ireland and laicized. Healy’s case was handled in Ireland—the country where the abuse occurred—but, he said, victims of Irish missionaries in other countries, particularly Africa, lack clear channels or have none at all for reporting and redress.

The church already responds to the psychological, emotional and spiritual fallout of victims of war in many of those countries, Healy said, so why not extend that same care and concern to victims of abuse by its own members? Healy has been looking at ways the order and the church as a whole could provide services across jurisdictions, especially “in countries where there are no structures” to help survivors and communities.

One proposal, which Healy also discussed with Father Fogarty, was the creation of a global network modeled after Doctors Without Borders. Instead of addressing physical harm, the network could specialize in delivering mental health care services to people suffering from trauma caused by war, civil conflicts and abuse in underdeveloped nations.

By offering comprehensive mental health services, Healy said, perhaps “you can alleviate the suffering and bring some function back to a dysfunctional society. Otherwise, violence will just repeat itself.”

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