Child Protection: From awareness to engagement

Federico Lombardi, SJ

 Federico Lombardi, SJ / Church Life / Published Date:22 January 2019/Last Updated Date:11 March 2020

In an earlier article I gave an overview of the main stages of the clerical sex abuse crisis and the response from the Church during recent pontificates.[1] Now I wish to present some examples of local documents and on-the-ground initiatives. This will help gain a better understanding of the lines along which the response of the Church develops, where it is already clear and operational. It will also show which lines of approach can be developed where first steps are currently taking place.

In 2011 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith sent all episcopal conferences a circular letter[2] asking them to set out guidelines on how to address cases of sexual abuse by members of the clergy in light of the canonical norms renewed by Benedict XVI. So began an important process of reflection and writing that is still ongoing in dialogue with the Congregation, which receives the drafts from different parts of the world and offers observations, mainly on the canonical aspects. To give a summary idea of the situation, about half of the episcopal conferences have completed the revision of their projects after receiving observations, and so have a document that has been officially approved (even if only ad experimentum, that is, open to being revised in the future); a quarter have nearly completed their work, having received observations and are setting about their definitive revision; a quarter are still behind for various reasons, which include the different cultural contexts and the lack of available skills.

Episcopal documents: the example from Canada

Several episcopal conferences have learned from experience that it is not enough to respond to abuse cases in a legally correct way, only. There is a need to widen scrutiny of the case to include an understanding of the causes, circumstances and dynamics of abuse, and look ahead with a view to preventing it in future. So, documents have been published that include the nucleus of the requested guidelines in the strict sense, but also provide a wider orientation for bishops and indeed the entire ecclesial community. A significant example is seen in the document Protecting Minors from Sexual Abuse published by the bishops of Canada in June 2018.[3]

The first part looks at the effects of sexual abuse on the Catholic Church in Canada. It opens with a series of 9 lessons that deserve attention.

1) The need for bishops and religious superiors to have a pastoral encounter with the victims, something personal that goes beyond the administrative approach.

2) The need to understand abuse properly, drawing on the greater awareness of the depth of the wounds inflicted on those abused and the personalities of the offenders, so as to have greater awareness of our pastoral and administrative responsibilities.

3) The need to respond effectively to allegations, giving them serious consideration and acting in a timely fashion, such as cautionary measures, informing the relevant authorities, preliminary investigations. 

4) How you deal with offenders. In this sphere, besides the canonical measures to be applied, two problematic aspects need addressing: a) how to respond to the general public’s expectations of accountability for any episodes and for information about offenders; b) pastoral care for offenders, where the rigorous requirements of the legal system and safety of children do not exclude “the possibility to seek healing through conversion.”

5) The need for better safeguarding practices and training.[4] This section makes clear how important it is to offer training to all those who work in the different pastoral spheres, not only the clergy, but also families and communities.

6) The need to consider the effects on clergy, members of institutes and laity: coping with shame. The humiliation suffered by those in the Church who are not guilty of abuse often leads to a major crisis of trust, personal situations of depression, isolation, even deviant behavior, or abandonment of the Church and the Faith. All this requires a response of mutual support and encouragement, spiritual solidarity and co-responsibility.

7) The need for better initial and ongoing formation. This concerns seminarians, the clergy and religious, their initial selection and human formation, as well as their spiritual, intellectual and pastoral formation.[5]

8) Learning about the legal process. On this matter, the lessons learned by the Canadian bishops are obviously in the context of state and federal legislation. However, they are also significant for other reasons. For example, they highlight how the processes, due to there impersonal nature, often cause more traumas for the victims and make it hard for compromise Church authorities express a sincere desire for compassion and reconciliation.[6]

9) A call for greater authenticity. The crisis has had a deep negative impact on the mission of the Church, particularly in the field of education for young people and families; recovering the evangelizing credibility of the Church in the secularized world today is a challenge that requires an authentic spiritual renewal that is equally deep.

One of the great merits of the Canadian document is that it has not limited itself to repeating the earlier “new lessons” in general terms, but it has formulated for each one of them a series of precise and detailed “Recommendations and Action Points.” In total, there are 69 recommendations and they have the advantage of being thorough and very clear; the number should not scare us, but encourage us, for this detailed articulation is a true aid to understanding how to move from theory to practice.

The second chapter describes the demands of the healing process for individuals and communities, entering more deeply into the effects of abuse on victims and the psychological and spiritual responses to their injuries. From the spiritual point of view, there is a need to study in particular the question of how to restore a just image of God and relations with God, also the ministry of compassion toward those who suffer, and the great amount of prudence and gradual steps needed in the pathway of reconciliation, and in how we speak about forgiveness while being attentive to the deep suffering of the victims. And alongside the victims, there is also a need to consider the families, parishes, institutions and dioceses that have suffered. They too need healing to overcome the traumatic impact of abuse and must be engaged as much as possible in caring for the victims and in the co-responsible commitment of prevention.

Responsibility, accountability, transparency

The third chapter has the title “The Road Ahead.” It is mainly aimed at the bishops and offers some useful insights for reflection in view of the upcoming February meeting of bishops on the protection of minors.[7] It repeats the need for a change that goes beyond improving the administration and procedures that effectively reach the  heart of the “institutional culture and mentality” of the Church.

Certainly, it is necessary to formulate and put into place policies and protocols for child protection that are clear, accessible and coherent, conform to civil law and the norms of canon law; they are to be written with the help of experts and reviewed periodically by those who are independent of the ecclesiastical authority so as to guarantee their objectivity. But this will only happen if bishops become more aware of their own responsibility – which is administrative and pastoral – to “ensure that all pastoral environments within their dioceses or eparchies are safe.” This responsibility includes respect for the civil laws that are necessary for the wellbeing of society, as well as the communion with other bishops of the universal Church and of the country, and the “synodal” engagement of the faithful and the experts: protection of minors is a good of paramount importance for the entire human family, just as much as it is for the Church.

The issue of accountability follows next, logically and immediately. It is understood as the “obligation of one party to answer for how it fulfils its responsibilities to another.” “It is not primarily about accepting blame for something that goes awry, but about delivering on accepted and shared commitments. Central to this understanding is the identification and acknowledgement of a good which is held in common by a number of people and an understanding of who is accountable to whom for the well-being and safekeeping of this good.” The traditional vision of preeminent authority of the bishop in the ecclesial community makes this issue particularly delicate but urgent: it is one of the key points on which to concentrate serenely, courageously and clearly.

The duty to be accountable, for bishops and those who have positions of responsibility within the Church, is articulated in various directions:  1) to victims and their families; 2) to the people whom they serve directly and to wider society; 3) to one another – as members of the Church and as members of the College of Bishops or of one’s institute; and 4) accountability both to the demands of the laws of the Church and the laws of the land.” To improve their accountability, some bishops have found auditing services helpful. Obviously, they should be independent with respect to the individuals or institutions being controlled (the Canadian bishops signal the services offered by two important U.S. child protection agencies, Praesidium and Virtus). They can objectively evaluate and so help improve procedures and protective measures as well as train staff.

This is strictly linked to a third aspect, that of transparency. In fact, accountability comes with the completion of tasks only if the procedures followed and the decisions and actions of those responsible are communicated to other concerned individuals “in a timely, open, efficient, and truthful manner.” Sincerity and honesty in communications, the commitment to facilitate access to information, and to welcome outside help to improve the protection of minors are obviously behaviors that go in the opposite direction to the tendency to hide and cover up. This was one of the causes of so much evil and tragedy in the past. This is why it is an important challenge and not to be ignored. A complex challenge – as the expectations of transparency are so high today (even following the drop in trust in the ecclesiastical authorities and in authorities generally) and sometimes even in conflict with the duties of privacy of the victims themselves – but it is an unavoidable challenge. We should not forget the words of encouragement from Pope Francis: “Do not fear transparency. The Church does not need darkness to carry out her work.”[8]

While the issue naturally tends to highlight the responsibilities of bishops, it cannot however be limited to them, for the abuse crisis has brought to light many lessons on differing aspects such as “human weakness, sexuality, ministry, leadership, authority” and it has helped understand the need for a renewal of relations within the Church, as Pope Francis has noted often enough in his criticism of clericalism, that is the exercise of authority as power rather than as service. The recognition of mistakes and deep humiliation can become occasions of conversion: “Perhaps from the pain of sexual abuse will emerge the grace not only of healing for individuals, but of the ecclesial renewal which cannot be deferred.”

Presenting the document we are commenting on at a recent plenary assembly of Canada’s bishops, Bishop Ronald Fabbro of London, Ontario gave a touching personal testimony, reflecting on his 17 years as a bishop always marked by the problems of sexual abuse, but also by prayers and trust in the Spirit: “The grace that I have experienced from listening to victims has truly allowed me to live it in a new way. I knew that I could not live my episcopal ministry without a personal, daily relationship with God. You will all have had similar experiences. They are a moment of grace for us. They have made us vulnerable and opened our hearts to the Holy Spirit. They have helped us understand in a truly personal way what it means to be a true pastor.”[9]

Guidelines for the application of canon law

The second part of the Canadian document contains what are more technically and specifically defined as “Guidelines” to help Church leaders (bishops, Eastern eparchs, major superiors etc.) consolidate their child protection policies, and particularly to formulate the necessary “protocols” to respond appropriately from a canon law and pastoral point of view to reports or verified cases of sexual abuse by members of the clergy. With due adjustments – described in an appendix to the document – these can be applied to abuse committed by non-ordained members of religious institutes or lay people officially occupying positions of responsibility in Church structures.

The essential canon norms of reference were those promulgated by John Paul II (Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela, from 2001) and updated by Benedict XVI in 2010, with the inclusion – among other things – of child pornography among the “more grave crimes.” These apply to the whole universal Church and are to be rigorously observed. They include the mandatory duty for the bishop to open a “preliminary investigation” every time a report of abuse is made that “has the semblance of truth.” Once the investigation is complete, if the allegation is founded, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is to be informed. It will indicate how to proceed in the penal process, that is, if a legal or an administrative approach is to be followed through to the sentence. As soon as the preliminary investigation is started the Ordinary can and must establish precautionary measures concerning the person being investigated. The guidelines and the explanations have been written with precise terminology and necessary legal precision. For this reason they have been put to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for verification.

On this note an observation may be made: those who have worked on these questions for many years are full of sincere admiration for the commitment the Church has made in formulating essential, wise and clear canon norms that have universal value in this matter, despite the massive cultural differences that exist in the world. It is very important then that they be observed scrupulously, as an expression of ecclesial communion, and at the same time that academics and Church leaders continually guarantee the development and correction of canon law relating to the great problems of the world today.

In applying the universal norms of canon law, the guidelines of each episcopal conference must ensure that their application conform to civil law.[10] It is important to note – and the indications of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith actually note – that the Church must collaborate with the civil authorities in this field. A particularly important and debated point here is that of the obligation to inform or not the appropriate civil authorities. There are different situations and different legislations in the many countries of the world; there is no room here to go into the details of that discussion, but it is clear that the guidelines for each country must give clear indications to the local bishops to help them orient themselves on this matter coherently and wisely, respecting the laws and also their pastoral responsibilities. The Canadian document is a good example.

Coming to practical indications, the Canadian guidelines establish that Ordinaries (bishops or major superiors) should nominate a delegate (and possibly also a substitute) to treat questions concerning abuse and its reporting. This person should be assisted by a Council of at least three competent individuals who can also ensure that the procedural protocol is kept up to date and can offer a service at the inter-diocesan or inter-congregational level. They should also ensure there is an official spokesperson who is not the delegate responsible for relations with the media. It is also asked that diocesan protocol be well known among the clergy and among the laity, and easily accessible and understandable for the general public so that whoever needs to can easily contact the delegate or a substitute. Naturally, there is also the matter of guaranteeing the rights of those accused and the commitment to restore a good name to anyone unjustly accused. 

Diocesan services: the Bergamo example

As we have just seen, it is expected that in every diocese there are specifically designated people and clear procedures to ensure that any reports of abuse or situations of risk are treated adequately. The same applies for preliminary investigations and eventually processing cases. Many dioceses already have significant experience and important models have been developed for these matters: not only, but also to promote a systematic commitment to prevent abuse. In Italy we can give the example of the Diocese of Bergamo where a dedicated curia office has been created with the title “Diocesan Service for Safeguarding Children.” It is equipped to work in various fields.

A first field is obviously that of receiving reports and handling them, so as to have a first summary check of the basis of these reports and be able to refer to the bishop (especially in cases concerning members of the clergy, for which it is necessary that the bishop initiate a preliminary investigation). For this purpose a specific “Protocol for receiving and handling reports” has been prepared. It is full of practical, psychological and communication indications for conducting an initial interview. It has indications for the further examination of its truth, which must see the participation of a small, easy-to-gather working group with different components (legal-penal, psychological, canonical, pastoral, and communications).[11]

The second sphere where the Diocesan Service works is no less important and is dedicated to prevention activities: information and formation. Considering the mission of the Church in educational and young people’s pastoral fields, there is a need for some foresight to develop and spread a true “culture” of child protection, which has its key dimension in prevention.

For this purpose a study group has been established that includes pastoral, psycho-educational and legal specialists. They do not look at particular cases of abuse but identify and develop good procedures and best practices for the different fields of life and activity of the diocese. They edit publications and supportive literature, help parishes and other ecclesial realities, organize seminars, sessions and formation conferences at different levels, for pastoral workers, families, and seminarians. They give significant attention to the formation of youth workers concerning the risks connected to the web and social media (cyberbullying, phishing, online pedophilia etc.). All these activities are naturally developed thanks to opportune synergies with centers and other specialist institutions in the field of child protection and other diocesan offices (for youth pastoral work, families etc.), associations and interested institutions.

As concerns parishes, what is most interesting – and exemplary – is a recent diocesan circular letter dedicated entirely to “Good Practices for Safeguarding and Protecting Children in Parishes.”[12] It is fruit of an attentive on-the-ground experience, and full of valuable practical indications: selection of those who will work with children, formation of volunteers, taking care of spaces and environments, relations with parents and their consent for their children’s activities, use of technology, publication of images of children in news services and on the internet. This list of themes is enough to understand how prevention must be and can become more and more not just an obsessive concern but our “way of looking” around, aware and also spontaneous in all our pastoral and educational life.

It is clear that the organization and functioning of a diocesan service of this kind is very demanding and only a few (well structured) dioceses have the necessary resources. This shows the need for collaboration between dioceses and ecclesial institutions, for nothing impedes most of the activities described from being run at a wider level, e.g. regional or inter-diocesan, so setting aside short-sighted and dangerous practices occurring at a local level and developing a desire to work and walk together. Finally, we see that the commitment to protect children in the life of the Church is not limited to the clergy and diocesan structures or those run by religious institutes: there are many, many other activities that engage children and young people. They too must promote awareness and responsibility for protection and prevention.[13]

Training safeguarding leaders: the CCP of the Gregorian University

In order to translate the declarations of principles into action and daily reality, there is a need for competent and capable people. As child protection is a field that has greatly developed over the last 20 years, there is a need to formulate and organize new and adequate courses of study and formation. Initiatives are not lacking, especially where the problem has been faced for longer and with more urgency. But in vast areas of the world – lacking in experience, resources and skills – this continues to be a difficult matter.

In order to respond to this need, since 201 the Gregorian University and its Institute of Psychology’s Center for Child Protection has developed and promoted training programmes, conferences, communication and research to both professionals and academics. The principles the CCP inspires to are simple and clear: 1) Victims first; 2) The Christian vision of the human person created in the image of God; 3) Spirituality, based on faith and theological reflection; 4) Cultural sensitivity that respects and is attentive to the differences between cultures; 5) The multidisciplinary, bringing together different professionals from psychology, sociology, civil and canon law and theology.

Given the urgency of the problems faced, students have come from over 30 countries on the different continents and with differing educational experiences (theology, law, psychology, psychotherapy, medicine, education, the sciences…). They are required to have already completed a degree to first-cycle level (baccalaureate). Candidates are presented by civil or ecclesial authorities with a view to preparing them to carry out different roles in the field of protection on returning to their respective countries of origin.

At the CCP it is not just the content of what is taught that counts: the method is central. Given the great variety of situations and tasks that the students will have to address in different cultures and countries, and keeping in mind the heterogenous nature of the group of students, the method is essentially centered on the students themselves. It aims not so much to give them a complete skill set “once and for all,” as to make them aware of the different dimensions of the problems and how they are connected, and inspire in them a dynamic ability to cultivate and grow in their own skills and seek appropriate responses for concrete contexts (cultural, pastoral, legal etc.) where they will go to work.

The basic level of formation offered by the center is that of the diploma. It requires one semester of full-time study, structured around several teaching units that are dedicated respectively to childhood; sexuality and relations between people; victims of abuse (various forms of abuse and their consequences, how to face them and care for them); offenders (their personalities and the causes and dynamics of abuse, legal measures and therapeutic and spiritual interventions); institutions and their way of reacting to abuse; prevention and any possible measures. The students also have important options for further study and practical exercise weeks and reflection on them (listening to victims, preparing formation sessions etc.) At the end of the semester, those who have received the diploma can carry out a number of important services, drawing also on their earlier qualifications. For example, teachers can work in schools or educational institutes or carry out training sessions on prevention; those who are qualified in canon law can carry out preliminary investigations in their dioceses; psychotherapists can work in the listening and accompaniment of victims, and so on.

While diplomas have been awarded to a good number of students over recent years, the current academic year has seen the launch of courses for a higher qualification, a second-level degree of Licentiate (Masters) in Child Safeguarding. This requires two years of study. The first semester is the same as the diploma. The third semester consists of an internship of infield practical training in a country where the student speaks the language. The second and fourth semesters are for further theoretical formation, partially shared with other all students on the course, and partially directed to one of four specialist areas: theology and training of clergy or religious (naturally with particular attention to protection of minors); canon law relating to abuse cases; education to the protection of minors; psychology and psychotherapy for victims, offenders and personnel working in the sphere of protection. The programme of lessons is very interesting and shaped to respond to most of the needs that were highlighted in the first parts of this article. Indeed, the variety and completeness of the abilities provided by the specializations is a marvel to behold. It offers an academic programme that responds to the sexual abuse issues and its prevention.

Naturally, only a few students can come to Rome or head to other countries for a specialized course of such depth. So the CCP has developed an e-learning programme available to formation centers and universities around the world, bringing useful training materials. The teaching units focus on the arguments we have mentioned and include texts, videos, graphs and powerpoint presentations. They are accompanied by bibliographical references and other teaching resources.

Currently, 56 institutions in around 30 countries of the world (especially Latin America and Africa) have connected to the CCP and use its e-learning programme. These are mostly universities, seminaries, dioceses, religious institutes and schools. The contact with these various realities greatly enriches the CCP with their experiences, observations and comments coming from different cultures and parts of the Earth. This is very precious in order to learn to inculturate more and more appropriately the service of protection of minors, which had been developed primarily in western cultures. The universalistic perspective that has always characterized the Gregorian University is active on the new frontier of protection of children in service to the Church and human society as a whole.

Some concluding considerations

In these pages we have presented some examples of documents from episcopal conferences, guidelines, diocesan services, codes of behavior, formation programmes for safeguarding minors. Dozens more could easily have been given, even hundreds. They are readily available in many languages on the web. What message are we trying to send?

In the universal Catholic Church there are a great variety of experiences, ideas and programmes that show not only the awareness of the reality of sexual abuse, of its serious and complex nature, but also of what can and should be done to oppose it, and how to oppose it. So a stance of fear and disorientation is not justifiable. Rather, we need deep commitment with radical, decisive attitudes positively adopting  responsibility, accountability and transparency.

This presupposes – for pastors and for the faithful – a deep spiritual conversion, in a pathway toward a renewed Church where the holiness of people and relationships, and the genuineness of the attitude of service will restore the credibility of the proclamation of the Gospel and the educational mission.

This also presupposes – in the wider community of the world – a living and concrete “synodal” solidarity, to share and distribute skills and resources in favor of the many dioceses and ecclesial realities, marked by poverty in social and human terms, that are unable to start up the necessary processes for protection and prevention without some help. The meeting of presidents of episcopal conferences next February will be a precious occasion to take decisive steps along this path, both for those “at the center” and for those in the “peripheries.”

[1].Cf. F. Lombardi, “Preparing for the Meeting of Bishops on the Protection of Minors,” December 2018,


[3].The document is available online in English and French:
site/images/stories/pdf/Protecting_Minors_2018.pdf Among the many others we have chosen this one for two reasons. First, the Canadian bishops were the first to face the issue following a 1984 report that had a significant impact on the country. In 1987 they drew up a first set of diocesan guidelines, and in 1992 with the document From Pain to Hope it became the first episcopal conference in the world to offer a set of orientations. On the basis of over 30 years of painful experience (not only in Canada but also in the neighboring USA and elsewhere) and further study and reflection, the Canadian bishops offer a new document that – and here is the second reason – is today the most up to date of its kind, even managing to cite the important Letters to the People of God that Pope Francis wrote in these last months.

[4].The document refers to the principle of “zero tolerance” and defines it as the attitude “marked by policies and programs designed to ensure that every allegation of sexual abuse is taken with the utmost seriousness and not one incident tolerated; it conveys clearly that no one who has sexually abused a minor will be in active ministry” (p. 35).

[5].The Canadian bishops explicitly refer to the recent Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis from the Congregation for the Clergy (2016) that explicitly address the question.

[6].“While Church leaders need prudential advice of all kinds, including legal counsel, they are more aware now of how certain approaches can militate against the duty of Christian charity.” This remains then a field for research and further reflection. Another important observation is that “the process by which most victims can move forward with their lives is not primarily legal, but one rooted in a more holistic understanding of the need for physical, psychological, and spiritual healing.”

[7].In the Letter from the Organizing Committee to the participants, the three words responsibility, accountability and transparency are identified as the three focal themes for the three days of the meeting taking place February 22-24, 2019 (Bulletin of the Holy See Press Office, December 18, 2018).

[8].Francis, address to bishops of Mexico, February 13, 2016.

[9].Bishop Fabbro’s Remarks at the Plenary Assembly of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, September 27, 2018.

[10].These can even differ between states or regions of the same nation!

[11].This type of protocol can be an extremely practical and important instrument given the gravity of the claim and their legal implications. Several have been published in different languages, cf. for example those of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference:


[13].Among the many examples that could be given are the various Caritas organizations that are continually engaging with children in their activities. Caritas Internationalis has had a Child Protection Policy Framework since 2004, while the English and Welsh agency CAFOD (Catholic Agency for Overseas Development) published a wide-ranging and detailed Child Protection Policy in 2015: The document is available in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese.