Laws of Eve | Churches need to better protect children
Although Jamaica's Child Care and Protection Act contains provisions to safeguard against abuse of children, no legislation can be effective in the absence of positive action by the persons and organisations who interface with those children. In other words, churches, schools and the community at large must take the initiative to put measures in place to protect vulnerable children
The Roman Catholic Church has been under the microscope for decades in relation to allegations of sexual abuse of children by priests. The most recent reports emerged from Pennsylvania, USA, where it is said that over 1,000 children were abused by more than 300 Catholic priests. Even more devastating is the allegation that many cases of abuse were covered up, claims were settled, many of the perpetrators were quietly removed from the church or transferred, and still others were allowed to continue to be priests.
Not only have several cases come to light in recent years, but there have even been civil claims filed in various courts against some priests and the church. In one such case in Miami, Florida, in 2011, a priest had allegedly drugged and raped 26 male victims while they were still young boys between 1972 and 2002. The report states that the church never carried out investigations until 2002 and the priest voluntarily retired in 2004. One victim, who was 14 years old at the time he was abused, sued the priest and was awarded $10 million in compensatory damages and $90 million in punitive damages.
No compensation could possibly be enough.
The issue is not confined to the Roman Catholic Church or to countries outside of Jamaica; so it begs the questions as to what churches in Jamaica ought to do to protect children. Below are some suggestions:
All churches must acknowledge their responsibility to protect children from abuse.
All churches must commit to reporting incidents of abuse to the police. Otherwise, perpetrators will be emboldened and there will be no justice for victims.
Churches need to speak openly about the facts surrounding sexual abuse with both adults and children within the congregation through ongoing education programmes. It is important to teach children self-protection skills.
SEX OFFENDERS EXCLUDED
Background checks must be conducted on all persons who are volunteering to care for children within the church community, and known sex offenders must be excluded.
Churches should establish internal policies that reflect adherence to the law and outline procedures for safeguarding against, and dealing with, reported cases of abuse.
Opportunities for abuse should always be minimised by establishing rules of conduct, such as the need to ensure that children do not have one-on-one meetings with adults in isolated areas.
The congregation should be educated about identifying the warning signs that a child is being abused, and the relevant persons within the church or external agencies to whom suspicious matters should be reported on the basis of anonymity.
Counselling services must be made available to the victims of abuse as well as other affected children.
The reaction to reported cases of abuse must be prompt and responsible. Victims must be treated with dignity and afforded all necessary support.
It is open to victims of abuse to sue the church, so it is also important for the church to explore the need for liability insurance that includes sexual abuse coverage.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but the hope is that it will allow us to start a conversation that leads to effective measures being implemented to better protect children from abuse.