From the East African country of Kenya, Sr. Jacinta Ondeng said Africa still shies away from talking about issues of abuse.
“The issue of safeguarding is something that has affected the whole world. And Although we don't talk so much about it the way we've heard from other parts of the world, like Europe or America, we believe that there is a lot that is going on that is never reported in public,” said Sr. Ondeng.
She added, “There are many times I listen to the radio and catch news of children that have been sexually abused. And of course, physical abuse is part of the culture. So, I believe that sex abuse is in the Church as well, only that we have not been able to really get inside the core of the problem and start addressing it.”
Her sentiments were echoed by Benjamin Msowoya, a lay person from Malawi, who faulted “harmful cultural practices” on the continent for helping foster abuses.
“I feel that we have many harmful cultural practices in Africa that are promoting abuse of minors and the vulnerable adults. I could really feel the same vibe from fellow students from other parts of Africa,” said Msowoya, adding, “We all feel that one of our tasks is to combat such harmful cultural practices. Our preventive measures, they will be useless if they don't really address the cultural problem.”
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Sr. Ondeng who teaches at Tangaza University College, a Catholic higher learning institution in Nairobi, Kenya said she would use her position at the university to create awareness on issues of child abuse.
“This (university) is my right forum to help those who are looking into being ordained as Catholic priests to know that really this isn’t just a problem for America,” she said and added, “In working with the seminarians one key thing that I want to emphasize is boundary violation.”
“At one point during formation, we talk about human development. But at one given point, this kind of formation gets lost. So, there should be an emphasis of ongoing formation on our human development so that we are able to handle the problems that come with issues like child sexual abuse,” the Kenyan nun said.
Sr. Ondeng highlighted the importance of educating people on the importance of pointing out cases of abuse and lauded Bishops in Kenya for creating room for complaints against perpetrators of sexual abuse.
“I think we need to educate our people that when there are cases of abuse, victims need to come out and report to the relevant people. I am very pleased that in Kenya, the Catholic Bishops Conference has taken the issue of child abuse very seriously,” she said.
Sr. Ondeng added, “I'm aware that the conference has emphasized that in every diocese there must be a child protection desk. We are going to be asking people who have fallen victims to take courage and to speak out.”
For Teresa Sanyatwe, a lay person from Zimbabwe that was sponsored by a church agency in Germany to attend the training, efforts were already underway in the country to prevent abuse of children.
These efforts, according to Sanyatwe, included banishing corporal punishment in school and creating awareness on child trafficking in the landlocked Southern Africa nation.
“We have programmes in child safeguarding in schools where we are looking at alternative ways to corporate punishment. Already, the government introduced a law against corporal punishment,” said Sanyatwe, adding, “But even then, there are families that are still using the stick to punish their children.”
Noting that children in Zimbabwe were being trafficked to South Africa where they were forced into child labour and prostitution, Ms. Sanyatwe said her sole purpose would be to engage with Bishops in the country to initiate an anti-trafficking campaign.
“My initiative is to go and suggest to my Bishops at Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops Conference to start a child safeguarding commission so that these issues may be handled in the church,” said Sanyatwe, adding, “A majority of the population in Zimbabwe are Catholics and many parents like to take their children to catholic institutions. We start from the church to educate the parents especially on the good practices of safeguarding children.”
She added, “It isn’t the responsibility of children to look after themselves. Focus will be on adults and parents. For children, it will be just about to raise awareness.”
Meanwhile, according to Blase J. Cardinal Cupich who presided over Holy Mass that preceded the graduation ceremony, the five-month course was designed to equip candidates enrolled in the programme with a skill set that they would need in order to help their dioceses to put in safe environment programs.
"It will also create a global network by which they're going to be supportive of each other and impress upon, I think, the church throughout the world that this is a global issue. It's not just isolated in certain countries," the American Cardinal said.
Highlighting the achievements of last year’s summit on prevention of sexual abuses, the Archbishop of Chicago said structures had been put in place to ensure proper child-safeguarding practices in dioceses.
“The Holy Father was very clear that there had to be outcomes… And then, of course, he issued the apostolic exhortation which is a means by which the Church will hold accountable bishops on how they handle these cases,” Cardinal Cupich said.
He added, “There’s also work being done now on the task forces to help various dioceses and countries put together their norms and implement them in a way that's in accord with Church law.”
Referencing the McCarrick report that dug into a sexual abuse scandal, on the sidelines of the graduation, the American Prelate said the document “is still being worked on”.
He explained, “Last I heard, they were going to try to release it sometime in March. So, I think that what's important about that report is that there is a disclosure of what happened. I think that's important, but it's part of the transparency that the Holy Father has pledged the church to at this moment.”
“We have to make sure that we do that. But I think it's also important to remember that the concerns that we have with regard to a child's safety go beyond one instance, a one particular individual,” the 70-year-old Prelate said.
In the five-month training, safe guarders from all over the world are oriented through particular programs to be able to work with dioceses at all levels in ensuring the safeguarding of children and vulnerable adults. A multidisciplinary approach is used in training and this involves Psychology, Theology, Spirituality, Sociology and Canon law.