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Sexual offences: Lessons learnt and the creation of safe spaces

It is our combined responsibility – as institutions and organisations – to ensure public spaces are equipped to deal with and prevent the devastatingly high number of sexual offenses that are currently plaguing our society.

A recent headline caught my eye. A 58-year-old patroller had allegedly sexually assaulted 87 primary school children at a school in Soweto. The headline is not particularly unusual; the numbers and names are different, but the sentiment is familiar. It is fast dawning on many people that sexual offences are not just a problem of the Church, but a problem of society. And while there is nothing that can remove the damage done, there is a consoling factor of life – even in the most horrid times – that we have an opportunity to learn and plan for the future.

The Church is often afraid to venture into this topic; this avoidance is understandable, to some degree, because of the historical association of the Church with sexual offences and the great damage caused by its actions. The Church’s association with this subject is not unfounded with many officials being charged with sexual offences. There has also been a lot of criticism levelled against the Church because of the manner through which these cases have been handled – in particular the cases that were known to the leaders of the Church, but kept secret. Priests alleged to be sexual offenders were moved from one parish to another – a scandalous and most grievous act.

And in an act of reparation, the Church had to begin the process of compensation, litigation, investigation, and critically, new conversations about the creation of safe spaces. Many dioceses across the world, with Southern Africa taking the lead, began to set up protocols of how to deal with sexual offences cases especially when those cases involve children and vulnerable adults.  This experience that the Church has gone through, its mistakes and corrections, can and should be used in order to enhance the conversation towards finding solutions to this societal problem. And because of the depth of learning the Church has undergone, it is now able to assist other institutions in the creation of safe spaces.

The experience of the Church in this issue has taught us that there are several factors to consider when creating safe environments. The first thing to consider is that although many people are generally good people who would not commit these crimes, that presumed goodness should never deter institutions from screening everybody. It is often very easy to screen the main actors in an institution and forget the supporting characters. For example, in the case of a school, teachers are often screened and background checks (criminal record checks) are done, but support staff, cleaners, groundskeepers and security may not be subjected to the same checks. Who checks the people who transport children to and from school every single day? Who checks on those selling food or sports coaches? And what of volunteering parents? And indeed, apart from the schools that have official chaplaincies, no one really checks the minister of religion who has access to a school, a university or even a place where there are vulnerable people.

Lessons learnt

Although many institutions (government or private) have some kind of system when it comes to the reporting of sexual offences, they do not all have a clear and safe channel for victims to report cases.  The case of the Soweto school illustrated that the absence of such persons (safeguarding officers) created an environment of secrecy and intimidation. This Soweto school case shows us that the conversation about sexual offences – which should happen at least once a year to all students and staff – had never happened. It also showed that the school did not have designated safeguarding officers. This is not just a problem of that particular school.  Even in major companies the victim is always faced with reporting the offender to people who will worry more about the reputation of the company that the wellness of the victim. Work environments are some of the worst offenders when it comes to intimidation and gossip to the point where the victim is no longer able to work. The victim has to deal with the heinous violation that they have experienced, then with the offender and his or her friends, then with the company or employer that is slow to act.

Another learning from the Church’s experience is that when there is a case reported there must swift action. Delayed action could result in the perpetrator continuing to offend, with the problem getting bigger and the number of victims potentially increasing. The institution has a duty to make sure that its environment is kept safe. This responsibility cannot be left to the victim.  Critically, all allegations must be taken seriously and investigations must take place, whether or not the victim opens a criminal case. The alleged perpetrator must be removed from the environment and the victim must be protected. However, as the Church learnt, transferal from one place to another of the alleged perpetrator only spreads the problem to other areas, but does not deal with the problem.  A criminal process must eventually take place so that the full might of the law can descend on the offender.

There should be support for victims and their families.  There is often criticism that there could be some cases where the alleged offence cannot be verified even after a thorough process of investigation. Even if all processes have exonerated the offender that does not take away the duty of offering support to the victim. It is also important to allow the victim to dictate their own action plan. For example, if the victim says she or he is going to approach a court of law they should not be discouraged to do so, nor should they be told who they should speak to or not. The institution should always be aware that the current culture of concealing information will always lead to even greater problems later.

There are many other places where safeguarding is difficult to ensure, like in the home where the majority of sexual offences take place. What is within the control of society are the shared spaces.  There should be legislation that ensures that all share spaces and institutions where people and children gather have in place safeguarding protocols and systems.  It is a topic that the Church must champion so that the Church becomes part of the solution. Predators are always drawn to places where the prey is already assembled. We can no longer pretend that there are no wolves waiting to find their way into the sheepfold. SA.

Picture: Jessica Lea/Department for International Development

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.



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Lawrence Mduduzi Ndlovu
A Diepkloof, Soweto born Catholic Cleric, writer, poet and speaker. As a writer he has contributed for several publications including The Daily Maverick, The Thinker, The Southern Cross and The South African. Lawrence read philosophy and theology at St John Vianney Seminary Pretoria, Heythrop College, University of London and the Bellarmine Institute in London. He is a trustee of the St Augustine Education Foundation Trust and an Advisory Council Member of the Southern Cross Weekly.

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