LITTLE BAY – Ministers of Religion, Church Elders, Youth Leaders, Children Ministry Leaders and a range of other persons who work with the children and youth in the churches on Montserrat, on Thursday July 9th met with the staff of the Social Services Department to discuss the Role of Places of Worship in Child Protection and Safeguarding Children and Young People.
The workshop which ran from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. was jointly hosted by UNICEF and the Department of Social Services. The programme was jointly chaired by Permanent Secretary Elijah Silcott and Director of Social Services Mrs Teresena Fergus.
On island to facilitate the workshop were UNICEF representatives Bishop Gerald Seale and Reverend Haylesney Griffith of Barbados. Bishop Seale presented on Child Protection and Places of Worship and Reverend Griffith on Identifying Signs of Child Abuse in Our Congregations: What Religious Leaders Need to Know. They also dealt with Developing a Child Protection Protocol in Places of Worship.
Honourable Minister of Education, Health and Social Affairs, Mrs Delmaude Ryan gave opening remarks in which she pledged her support to ensuring the safety of children. Presentations were also made by Elaine Ryan, Child Safeguarding and Protection Specialist. She delivered a UNICEF presentation ‘Overview/Outcomes and Context Setting’ while ‘An approach to Child Protection and Safeguarding’ was the topic dealt with by Father George Aggar of the Roman Catholic Diocese.
Reference was made to the Lucy Faithful Report completed in Dec 2014 in Montserrat and to other research done in other Caribbean islands. It was believed that there is evidence of several kinds of abuse being practiced. According to the Lucy Faithful Report it was felt that churches were in the habit of covering up abuse by its members and even clergy. An appeal was made to do things differently, i.e. report the incidents to the Social Services Department and have them investigate and deal with the offenders even it meant them going to jail. It was pointed out that pastors and church workers could themselves face prison term if they failed to disclose information to the relevant authorities.
Denial has long been the method of choice in the homes and in the churches in dealing with complaints of abuse by children in the Caribbean, including Montserrat, noted several presenters. Parents often silence their children and refuse to believe them or to take action, while churches choose to investigate and pray about the matter. Offenders were often family members, politicians, persons with authority or means, or trust known to the family.
It was revealed that a common practice is for some parents to accept settlements rather than get the authorities involved. Some even saw child sexual abuse as their way of earning a livelihood.
Former Police Commissioner, Mr Paul Morris, confirmed this as having been the norm during the time he served in the Royal Montserrat Police Force. Some cases which were reported were not successfully prosecuted due to lack of persons willing to come forward in support.
Several of the churches present have in place a policy document. They were encouraged to review it to ensure that it met the needs of their children and that all members were aware of what it said. Those who did not have a policy were urged to develop one by January 2016. They were told that existing documents would be made available for them to use as guides.
Recognising that legislation is needed to cover certain loopholes in the law, attendees were assured that it was being addressed. Bishop Seale said that the role of the press is crucial in getting information out to the public. He also said that when that happened more cases would be reported, not that abuse is on the rise but that persons would feel more comfortable disclosing.
Coming out of the group discussions which followed, all persons present pledged their renewed support for child safeguarding. A committee consisting of representatives from all the churches was set up to put together an action plan document outlining the way forward.