First #aSaferChurch webinar a success

The purpose of the webinar “Safeguarding during COVID-19: A Victim’s Perspective” was to offer reflections for those working in the field of safeguarding, inviting experts to share their good practices in child protection, giving particular attention to the challenges raised by the current situation, in which the entire world is facing the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many, if not all, countries in the world have had to use lockdown strategies in order to stop or at least limit the diffusion of the virus. While this has certainly helped manage the risks related to COVID-19 from a health perspective, the obligation to stay at home unfortunately does not always mean being safe. For instance, in the case of child victims of intra-familial abuse, many victims have been obliged to stay 24 hours a day in the same place together with their perpetrator. The same can be said about domestic violence.

In general, the lockdown and the pandemic as such create new difficulties and challenges for minors and vulnerable adults who suffer abuse and maltreatment. Those who work in the field of safeguarding have to take into account these new and unexpected challenges. Also, society at large needs to be aware that many health and political decisions related to the pandemic should also face the child protection and safeguarding challenges which this difficult situation creates. The webinar aimed to offer a place and a time for people to share experiences and discuss these challenges. It was just the first appointment in a series of webinars devoted to safeguarding within church and society, which will be offered over the next months.

Initially proposed by Andrew Azzopardi, the idea of offering this seminar, and the sessions that will follow, grew thanks to the very good discussions between the members of the International Safeguarding Conference Steering Committee. The International Safeguarding Conference should have taken place at the end of June, this year, but due to the pandemic, it has been postponed. Therefore, the Committee discussed how to contribute in any case to the debate regarding safeguarding and to offer a “place” for sharing expertise and good practices. In this way, the webinar series came into being.

The members of the Steering Committee are

Mr. Andrew Azzopardi – Coordinator of the Vatican Safeguarding Taskforce and Head of Safeguarding Commission, Maltese Ecclesiastical Province

Fr. Hans Zollner SJ – President of the Centre for Child Protection (PUG) and Member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors

Mr. Simon Davies – Director of Professional Standards, Society of Jesus (Jesuits) Australia

Ms. Tina Campbell – National Safeguarding Coordinator, Catholic Bishops’ Conference Scotland

Dr. Alessandra Campo – Network Coordinator, Centre for Child Protection (PUG)

The first seminar of the #aSaferChurch series took place on 29 May at 3 p.m. CEST via Zoom. It was possible to register for the event using an indicated link; however, due to the incredibly large number of people who showed interest in the initiative, a private Facebook group was created, where the webinar was also streamed. The idea is to offer a platform, in addition to the webinars, to promote discussion and sharing about the topics and issues related to the protection of minors and safeguarding in general.

The speakers who gave their perspectives and insights on the topic were:

Tina Campbell (National Safeguarding Coordinator, Scotland)

Barbara Thorp (Child Protection Consultant, USA)

Beatrice Mumbi (Safeguarding Coordinator JCAM, Kenya)

Carlos Ignacio Man GIng SJ (Dean of the Faculty of Phillosophical-Theological Sciences, PUCE, Ecuador)

Judi Fairholm (Senior Expert, Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action).

About 600 people from around 70 countries registered for the webinar. They were mostly child protection officers and safeguarding operators and experts. The speakers offered brief presentations, which were followed by several questions and comments, sent by the attendees via chat, promoting discussion on the topic.

The initiative is the fruit of a genuine desire to answer a widespread need (and the number of participants and interested people present on this first occasion clearly indicated that): discussion, learning from others, and promoting efficient strategies and practices in safeguarding, being always aware and able to recognize the – even unexpected – risk factors. There is a need for networking, sharing, promoting dialogue about safeguarding topics and issues. Those who work in the field really feel this need. People need and want to know more about this. This initiative simply tries to respond to this.

For my involvement in this initiative, I first would like to thank Fr. Hans Zollner, SJ, the President of the CCP, who asked me to collaborate in the organization of the International Safeguarding Conference (ISC). I started working with the Committee and, when we had to cancel the ISC for this year, our dialogue, involvement, and motivation were too high to be simply suspended.

I worked with the team in order to organize the event, although special thanks must be given to Andrew Azzopardi and Tina Campbell, who worked so hard on this. I had the privilege of chairing the webinar with Andrew Azzopardi. I received the various (and many!) questions and comments from the audience and had the task of selecting just a few from among them. Indeed, it was not easy, as we got so many questions from different perspectives, cultures, and experiences. Just reading those questions was a way to learn much about the topic.

As the CCP’s Network Coordinator, I work with our Executive Secretary, Fr. Stefano Bittasi, SJ, to establish and coordinate partnerships with institutions around the world, who create formation courses in safeguarding using our blended-learning materials. From this point of view, the webinar series and the CCP have the same goal: promoting the protection of minors through formation and education.

But above all, the webinar series and the CCP’s work share the commitment to raising awareness about the importance of safeguarding and how much this requires everyone to be involved.

We are facing a difficult phase in world history. This pandemic is not only a health but also a social, ethical, and political challenge. The social reactions to the lockdown, the increased number of complaints of violence and maltreatment during lockdown, the economic crisis linked to the quarantine… all these aspects have an impact on the safety of children, minors, and vulnerable adults. As safeguarding officers, operators, and agents, and as Church, we have the responsibility of interpreting this time, identifying the challenges, offering answers, and above all, protecting and helping (even just potential) victims.