Consultation on New Safeguarding Standards: Catholic Schools Publicly Accountable for Child Safety

Child Safety

As discussed previously on School Governance, the Catholic Church’s child protection standards setting body – Catholic Professional Standards Ltd (CPSL) – has developed draft National Catholic Safeguarding Standards (Safeguarding Standards), to achieve its core organisational purpose of fostering a nationally-consistent culture of upholding the safety of children and vulnerable adults. The Safeguarding Standards are based on the Child Safe Standards developed by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (Royal Commission), and are being adapted, as required, to address specific structures, relationships and processes within Church authorities.

CPSL will audit compliance with its Safeguarding Standards, with the goal of upholding the accountability of the leadership and membership of Catholic institutions, including dioceses and congregations.

On 31 August 2018, CPSL released a Consultation Feedback Report (Report), summarising stakeholder feedback received on the effectiveness of the Safeguarding Standards and its associated audit program.

Background to CPSL

CPSL was formed by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and Catholic Religious Australia in response to the findings of the Royal Commission. While the foundational costs of CPSL have been borne by these two bodies, it will become a ‘user pays’ operation over time, with ongoing auditing and reporting costs to be met by Church authorities as and when they are reviewed.

CPSL is a registered charity and functionally operates independently from the Catholic Church, featuring an independent board of directors with no clergy or religious personnel members. While CPSL does not have the power to force Church authorities to implement particular recommendations, the goal will be to build the capacity of Church authorities to introduce appropriate safeguards. According to CPSL’s website, it “can and will” publish reports when a Church authority has failed an audit, indirectly influencing Catholic institutions through public accountability.

In its Strategic Plan released on 29 June 2018, CPSL committed to implementing core services and governance frameworks to achieve its organisational purpose. Key steps to be taken by CPSL over the 2018-2021 period include:

  • developing and refining the Safeguarding Standards by building upon the Royal Commission’s Child Safe Standards
  • developing an Audit Framework and Audit Plan to measure compliance with the Safeguarding Standards and the efficacy of safeguarding practices and organisational culture
  • implementing a learning and development strategy to strengthen the awareness, knowledge, skills and capacity of Catholic institutions to uphold child safety
  • implementing an engagement strategy to “hear and honour” concerns and fears of children and victims of abuse
  • engaging with key stakeholders, including within the Catholic Church and the government, to inform child safety measures.

CPSL management engaged KPMG to assist with the development of the Audit Framework, including trial and refinement of the Audit Framework through consultations and pilot audits.

Consultation Feedback

As detailed in the Report, CPSL has conducted a comprehensive consultation process, conducting consultations and discussion sessions with key stakeholders in each Australian capital city and collating advice. CPSL has identified its key stakeholders as being those who are responsible for implementing and ensuring compliance with the Safeguarding Standards (such as leadership personnel) and individuals that can critique the Safeguarding Standards by virtue of their personal experiences (such as victims of abuse and their families).

A summary of the common themes identified in each consultation stream is given below.

General Stakeholder Consultation Feedback

Obstacles, challenges and opportunities – CPSL must consider the financial, administrative and personnel strain on, and cultural challenges faced by, organisations that implement the Safeguarding Standards. However, the Safeguarding Standards present an opportunity to improve relationships between Catholic institutions and restore public confidence.

Audit approach – The majority of stakeholders recommended that CPSL, when it reviews the compliance of Catholic institutions, should adopt an extended audit approach (with multiple visits and a final report), in order to build internal skills and capacity, though a “single visit” audit approach (with a report produced after each audit) would be efficient in driving cultural change. Alternatives to these approaches included a self-assessment tool to mitigate strains on organisational resources, or a dynamic audit approach which shifts between different methods.

Training approach – Accommodating different age groups, language and cultural backgrounds and varying technological proficiency should be prioritised. Special training should be provided to Child Safety Champions (appointed personnel who promote child safety) and Catholic leaders due to their heightened responsibilities.

Survivor, Family and Advocate Feedback

Key challenges – Publicised and accessible complaints handling processes and whistleblower protections should be prioritised, including independent oversight of complaints management. Leadership personnel in Catholic institutions should be setting the standard ‘from the top’ in child safety and cultural change.

Adjustments to Safeguarding Standards – The Safeguarding Standards should contain a requirement to reconcile and acknowledge the past. The child-friendly version of the Safeguarding Standards should be adjusted to ensure that they are accessible to people of all ages and backgrounds, including by removing the term ‘abuse’ and formal risk language, incorporating pictures and colours, and inviting children to share stories.

Next Steps for Catholic Schools

It is anticipated that Church authorities will enter into contractual arrangements with CPSL, agreeing to comply with the Safeguarding Standards and to be audited in relation to their compliance.

The Safeguarding Standards have been in a draft state for some time, but are expected to be implemented towards the end of 2018 after collected feedback has been considered and actioned by CPSL. Once the Safeguarding Standards are final, CPSL has suggested that Catholic leaders will be publicly accountable for their implementation in Church entities and organisations.

All schools and their staff are already subject to child protection reporting laws, with many jurisdictions also imposing an organisational duty to protect children from abuse. These legal requirements also exist for schools that have a religious or spiritual focus, including Catholic schools. Because Church organisations (such as Catholic schools) are subject to other statutory or regulatory requirements, these requirements will be maintained, and as part of a CPSL audit, the organisation will need to demonstrate that they have current accreditation or compliance with these requirements.

While CPSL has intentionally mapped the Safeguarding Standards against the Royal Commission’s Child Safe Standards, there will inevitably be slight differences between the systems and some local requirements. In effect, this means that a Catholic school will be required to comply, and demonstrate compliance, with three sets of child safety standards or equivalent:

  • CPSL National Catholic Safeguarding Standards
  • Royal Commission Child Safe Standards
  • Jurisdiction-specific requirements, such as the Victorian Child Safe Standards or the NSW Principles for Child-Safe Organisations.

For Catholic schools to have the best chance of meeting these overlapping legal and regulatory obligations, the best approach would be to implement a Child Protection Compliance Program which is mapped against all applicable child safety frameworks. Best practice dictates that such a program would encourage all stakeholders to achieve continuous compliance (such as by taking steps to introduce a child safe and friendly culture) and be flexible enough to respond to regulatory change at any jurisdictional/institutional level.


About the Author

Kieran Seed is a Legal Research Consultant and School Governance reporter. He can be contacted here.

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