Standard 2: How to respond to Allegations and Suspicions of Abuse
This is what God asks of you: only this, to act justly, to love tenderly and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)
Children have a right to be free from abuse as well as a right to be listened to and heard. The Catholic Church is committed to promoting the safety, welfare and protection of children and takes all concerns, allegations, suspicions and disclosures of abuse very seriously. To support this commitment, the Archdiocese of Armagh has identified a number of Safeguarding Children personnel as outlined at the end of this Standard. Together these personnel are committed to ensuring that the following procedures are adhered to if any concern, allegation, suspicion or disclosure is made that indicates a member of the Church staff (current or former) has:
- behaved in a way that has harmed a child, or may have harmed a child;
- committed a criminal offence against a child or related to a child;
- behaved towards a child or children in a way that indicates s/he is unsuitable to work with children.
These procedures will be applied whether the alleged abuse is current or historical.
These procedures apply to:
- All church personnel (i.e. clergy, lay employees and volunteers);
- All church personnel are required to comply with this document when ministering to young people through the Archdiocese of Armagh. It applies to all aspects of parish and diocesan ministry in the Church whether within a church building, community work, pilgrimages, trips or holidays;
- It is the responsibility of everyone in the Archdiocese of Armagh to ensure that children who may need help and protection are not left at risk of abuse;
- The Reporting Flow Chart below refers to any child protection concern that involves a child in the community including where the concern is about a situation or person involved in the Church.
1. When a concern arises the information is given directly to the Diocesan Designated Officer. If a Parish Safeguarding Representative receives a concern he/she must pass the information immediately to the Diocesan Designated Officer.
The details of the Diocesan Designated Officers are:
Armagh Diocesan Safeguarding Office
Archdiocese of Armagh
Tel: 028 37 525 592 (NI)
Tel: 048 37 525 592 (ROI)
Tel: 078 4110 1687 (NI)*
Tel: 00353 78 4110 1687 (ROI)*
Armagh Diocesan Safeguarding Office
Archdiocese of Armagh
Tel: 028 37 525 592 (NI)
Tel: 048 37 525 592 (ROI)
Tel: 075 8432 3138 (NI)*
Tel: 00353 75 8432 3138 (ROI)*
* Please note, these contact numbers are exclusively for reporting concerns or making allegations in relation to safeguarding children.
3. In the event that the Diocesan Designated Officer is not available, or the circumstances of the complaint indicate that this action is not appropriate, the Parish Safeguarding Children Representative or other individual with a concern or allegation must contact the civil authorities directly. In this eventuality, the Diocesan Designated Officer should be informed of the complaint as soon as practicable.
The guiding principle is that the safety of the child is always the most important consideration. Any allegation or concern regarding the abuse of a child should be treated seriously and for this reason it is important for anyone raising a concern to strictly follow the Diocesan Reporting Procedure, using the Diocesan Safeguarding Children Recording Form to record the relevant information. Particular care should be taken with regard to confidentiality and the sharing of information with appropriate people.
It is vital to remember that the safety and well-being of any children must be the paramount consideration in any investigation and children should never be put at further risk of harm by delay or inaction. The Church has a responsibility to pass on safeguarding children concerns about a child to civil authorities even when it does not concern church personnel directly.
Initial contact procedure
All those involved in dealing with an allegation or suspicions of abuse are required to record their conversations and actions. This includes the Diocesan Designated Officer and, if reporting on behalf of the complainant, the person who reported the abuse or concern to the Designated Officer. Below is the action that should be taken on receipt of a concern, suspicion, disclosure or allegation of abuse.
Remember – It is not your role to investigate.
1. If you receive a concern, suspicion, disclosure or allegation of abuse, you must act immediately and refer the matter to your Diocesan Designated Officer as soon as possible. The Diocesan Designated Officer will refer the complaint to the Health and Social Care Trust / Health Service Executive / An Garda Síochána / PSNI. The Diocesan Designated Officer will also inform the Archbishop / Auxiliary Bishop.
In cases of emergency, where a child appears to be at immediate and serious risk, an immediate report should be made to the Health and Social Care Trust (NI) or the Health Service Executive (RoI) as well as to the Designated Officer. Where the Child Care Team (RoI) are not available, An Garda Síochána should be contacted to ensure that under no circumstances a child is left in a dangerous situation pending Health and Social Services intervention. Consideration should, in all cases, also be given to whether an immediate referral is necessary in order to preserve and safeguard against the possibility of any loss, deterioration or destruction of potential evidence or forensic evidence.
2. Whenever possible and practical, take notes during the conversation. Always ask permission to do this and explain the importance of recording all information. Where it is not appropriate to make notes at the time, make a written record as soon as possible afterwards and in any case before the end of the day.
3. Explain to the child/person raising the concern what will happen next. Indicate who will be made aware of the information given by them. Leave contact details of the Diocesan Designated Officer in case the referrer needs to ask questions later.
4. Details of your conversations and actions should be recorded on the Diocesan Safeguarding Children Recording Form. This initial recording will form the first entry in a file of information about the case which will be retained by the relevant Diocesan Designated Officer. It should be signed and dated by you. An Additional Recording Page has been added to the end of this Form which would normally include:
- a. as much information as possible about the circumstances that led to the concern/allegation being raised and why the person is worried about the welfare and safety of the child or children;
- b. any explanation offered to account for the risk, injury or concern;
- c. details of any action already taken about the incident/concern/allegation;
- d. any views expressed by the child’s parent(s) or guardian(s) about the matter.
5. Do not be selective. Include detail which to you may seem irrelevant. It may prove invaluable at a later stage in an investigation.
6. All original records, including rough notes, must be passed immediately to the relevant Diocesan Designated Officer. Any copies of records retained must be kept secure and confidential.
7. Not all persons raising a concern will wish to go through the process described below. Nonetheless, information about the existence of a potential allegation must always be communicated to the Diocesan Designated Officer.
8. It is important not to discuss the incident/concern with anyone other than those detailed in these procedures.
Giving children the confidence to speak out
For many complex reasons children, who are abused often, hide their experience and do not tell even the adults that they know and trust. One of the reasons may be that the child has experienced abuse in which an adult has exercised their control and power over them. The adult may also have used threats to harm them or their family if they do tell, or manipulated the child to believe they are at fault in some way, or the cause of the abuse, or that they are complicit and should be ashamed. Different children respond to different experiences, in different ways, but many children do not speak out about being abused.
In order for our Diocese to promote a safe culture and environment, in all activities, we must be sure that children know they can speak out and be listened to. It is important to remember that very young children, disabled children or children whose first language is not English may need extra help to understand the same messages as other children.
Responding to a child making an allegation of abuse
Children will occasionally tell an adult they are being abused if they feel they can trust this person. This happens for many reasons but the important thing to remember is they are telling you in the hope that you will act to stop it happening, even if they ask you not to do anything with the information.
If a child begins to tell you about abuse it is important that you:
- stay calm
- listen carefully and take the child seriously
- ask questions for clarification only if you are unclear what the child is saying
- allow the child to continue at his/ her own pace
- reassure the child that, in disclosing the abuse, he/she has done the right thing
- tell the child he/she is not to blame for the abuse
- let them know you will do what you can to help
- report the child’s disclosure to your leader-in-charge and the Diocesan Designated Officer immediately.
As soon as possible, write down everything that you were told by the child, using his/her own words to describe the abuse. Use the Diocesan Safeguarding Children Recording Form to do this. Sign and date this record and pass it onto the Designated Officer.
- dismiss the concerns
- probe for more information/ask other questions
- ‘promise not to tell anyone’ or say ‘you’ll keep it a secret’
- make negative comments about the accused person
- make assumptions or speculate
- disclose details of the allegation to anyone else – even if the allegations involve them in any way.
Find an opportunity to explain that it is likely that this information will need to be shared with others and at the end of the discussion tell them what you plan to do next and with whom this information will be shared.
The one thing you MUST NOT do is NOTHING
Listen Record Consult
Remember: The person who first encounters a case of alleged or suspected abuse is not responsible for deciding whether or not abuse has occurred. That is a task for the professional safeguarding children agencies following a referral to them of the concerns about the child.
Guidance on how to respond to an adult making an allegation
Allegations of abuse come from adults as well as children, however the circumstance of the two disclosures differs. Adults may tell you about:
- abuse happening to them now – current;
- abuse that happened to them some time ago – historical;
- something they’ve been told by someone else and that they strongly believe is true;
- seeing signs of abuse, such as physical injuries on a child;
- something that they have witnessed, such as the behaviour of an adult to a child that made them;
- feel uncomfortable.
It is often very difficult for adults to talk about abuse, so it is important to make sure that you are patient, listen carefully and attentively, and create a safe environment in which they feel able to tell you as much as they can remember. This will help those people whose responsibility it is to investigate the incident(s) do so as thoroughly as possible.
Where information is given in person, consider the following:
- listen carefully to that person, but do not ask intrusive or leading questions;
- stay calm. Take what the person, raising the concern, says seriously and reassure them;
- allow the person to continue at his/her own pace;
- check with the person, if necessary, to make sure that you have understood what they actually said. Do not suggest words, but use theirs;
- make no promises that cannot be kept, particularly in relation to secrecy, but listen carefully to what is being sought;
- explain these procedures and the referral procedures to the person;
- offer to accompany the person to the Support Person;
- do not make any comments about the respondent, make assumptions or speculate;
- be aware that a person’s ability to recount his or her concern or allegation will depend on age, culture, nationality and upon any disability which may affect use of language and range of vocabulary;
- adopt a listening style which is compassionate, calm and reassuring. If the information given to you shocks, disgusts or distresses you, do not allow these feelings to show. If you do, you may inadvertently dissuade the person from giving any further information;
- avoid statements about your belief, or otherwise, of the information given;
- do not question beyond checking what has been said. It is the job of the Health and Social Care Trust / Health Service Executive / An Garda Síochána / PSNI to investigate. There must be no probing for detail beyond that which has been freely given.
Listening does not mean telling a person to stop when they are freely recalling events because some facts are only ever told once, the information given must be fully and accurately recorded. However, it is better that such detail is given directly to a professional from one of the Health and Social Care Trust / Health Service Executive / An Garda Síochána / PSNI to allow proper procedures to be observed and to avoid the distress of having to repeat the account more than once.
Anonymous allegations or concerns
Anonymous complaints are to be treated carefully. Anxiety and fear may prevent some people from revealing their identity immediately. It is sometimes difficult to act on information under these procedures unless at some point the name of the person raising the concern/making an allegation becomes known. The person raising the concern should be informed that anonymity might restrict the ability of professionals to access information or to intervene to protect a child. As much openness as possible should be encouraged.
Listening to a person who admits abusing a child
It is necessary to tell a person who admits an offence against a child or young person that such information cannot be kept confidential. If such an admission is made to you, even where the admission relates to something which happened a long time ago, you must refer the matter to the Diocesan Designated Officer as soon as possible, who will follow the procedures for referral to the Health and Social Care Trust / Health Service Executive / An Garda Síochána / PSNI.
This safeguarding structure represents the simplest way for the Church, as a whole, to ensure effective procedures and practices are in place to keep children safe and allows for these to be monitored regularly. Ensuring children are properly safeguarded requires co-operation and a willingness to work across traditional boundaries to ensure that any allegation or disclosure of abuse is handled compassionately, effectively and professionally.
Guidance on the Seal of Confession
Within the Sacrament of Confession practices need to be considered that ensure the safety of all those involved, at the same time as providing the required privacy for the person receiving the sacrament.
A priest must be clear about the status of any conversation relating to an allegation of abuse and make sure there is no misunderstanding about whether the seal of confession applies.
Because of the obligations of the sacramental seal, no priest exercising a function under child protection procedures will celebrate the Sacrament of Penance with a respondent.
Republic of Ireland it refers to An Garda Síochána and the Health Service Executive (HSE).
Service Executive (HSE). In Northern Ireland it is required that any incident is reported to either the PSNI or the
Health and Social Care Trust.
Executive/ An Garda Siochana/PSNI.
A paper by Bishop McAreavey on ‘How to safeguard children in the sacrament of penance’ was distributed to all clergy ministering to the Archdiocese in 2009. Extracts from this paper have been included on the diocesan website and copies of the entire paper are available from the Diocesan Secretary.