Safeguarding commitment is clear

“I was nervous going into the process. The people of the Diocese, particularly the volunteers and staff in parishes, have been working with the Office of Safeguarding over the past few years to ensure that we have good safeguarding practices. I believe that the Diocese has undertaken a significant journey, and that we had developed a strong safeguarding culture."

“But you never know what external experts will think.”

These are the words of Executive Manager of the Office of Safeguarding (OoSG), Zoe Marr.

During the second half of 2023 the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle underwent an external audit to test its compliance with Edition Two of the National Catholic Safeguarding Standards (‘the Standards’). The Standards were developed in response to the findings and recommendations of recent Royal Commissions into the abuse of children and vulnerable people.

The purpose of the Standards, and this audit, was to ensure the safety of those who encounter the Church.

The Most Rev Michael Kennedy, Bishop of Maitland-Newcastle, asked that the audit be particularly rigorous, as he wanted people to feel confident about the results. The audit was conducted by Australian Catholic Safeguarding Ltd. (ACSL) and Prolegis Lawyers, whose senior auditor was a solicitor for the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

The Diocese has achieved an outstanding result with 98% of the Standards’ indicators being assessed as being ‘Developed and Embedded’ or ‘Developed’.

The ACSL-Prolegis Audit Report summarised their findings:

The NCSS assessment of the Catholic Diocese of Maitland Newcastle indicates that the Diocese is successfully implementing and embedding a culture of safeguarding throughout its organisation.

The excellent audit result can be attributed to the unwavering commitment of Diocesan leadership, particularly the late Bishop Bill Wright, the former Diocesan Administrator Rev Greg Barker, and has continued under the guidance of the recently installed Bishop Michael Kennedy.

The expertise and dedication of diocesan personnel, particularly those in the parishes and schools that participated in the on-site audit, was extraordinary and demonstrated the Diocese’s clear and persistent commitment to safeguarding.

Some of the people most directly involved in the process were asked to reflect on their experiences and what the audit meant for them:

Fr Joseph Figurado is the Parish Priest at All Saints Blackbutt South. Having grown up and been called to the priesthood in Sri Lanka, Fr Jospeh has undertaken a journey of faith, becoming a part of the Diocese. Fr Jospeh has ministered to the people of All Saints Blackbutt South since February 2020.

“I have gone through many changes in my life, opening me to personal and spiritual growth. Our Diocese has been going through change and growth, adopting safeguarding into our Church life.

“It has been incredibly encouraging to see the audit results. I feel it highlights our significant progress in our safeguarding journey. We know what the standards are, and these practices are embedded in our daily life of the Church and community.

“This audit marks a positive milestone for All Saints Blackbutt South and the whole Diocese. It was the cooperation and support between our parish, Nichola McCarthy, our Parish Support Worker and the Office of Safeguarding that helped make these results happen.”

Rebecca Piefke is a Youth Ministry Coordinator and Safeguarding Promoter in the Chisholm Pastoral Region in and around Maitland.

During the audit, Rebecca gathered documentation and supported the Diocese in ensuring processes were compliant with the Standards along with her leadership of a thriving youth ministry.

“I felt that the audit process was a positive experience. It highlighted my Parish’s commitment to safeguarding children and vulnerable adults – something that is incredibly important.

“I hope that people who might have a negative view on the church will see that we are committed to safeguarding moving forward. Through this audit and the findings of the Royal Commission, it goes to show that we will go to great lengths to ensure that anyone who is a part of our community is safe and protected.”

Nichola McCarthy is a Parish Support Worker, based in the Bishop’s Office. With a sound understanding of the Diocese and well-established relationships with Diocesan clergy, Nichola commenced her role in late March 2023.

“For my first nine months as Parish Support Worker I was focused on supporting the Diocese prepare for the audit, primarily through liaising with parishes, facilitating training and providing advice and support on preparing for the audit. The Office of Safeguarding had developed and gathered a lot of support material for parishes. Sometimes it was about making people aware of all this material, where to access it and how to apply it.”

One of Nichola’s primary takeaways from the audit was how conscientious the people in the Diocese are about the safeguarding space.

Everyone really cared and wanted to make sure they got it right.

When reflecting on what this positive result means for the Diocese, Nichola said it’s lifted the spirits of everyone.

“It signifies we’re doing really well and we’re implementing the right systems. Everyone knows this is a part of our life. We have to move forward, and we are happy to do what is required to keep everyone safe.

“We are doing our utmost and absolute best to work towards keeping children and vulnerable adults safe.”

Anne Millard is the Director of Music at Sacred Heart Cathedral and Promoter of Safeguarding for St Benedict Parish and for the Inner-City region. Anne’s role in the audit was to evaluate processes and ensure the Parish was meeting the Standards. Having been one of many in the Inner City region who gave so generously of themselves, Anne surmised the process of the audit in two words; daunting and wonderful.

“It’s interesting how a project can be both; a lot of work, but also really exciting because we got to examine what we do as well as think about things we hadn’t even considered.

“Our learning was massive, but we were also affirmed. We knew from the audit that we had taken steps to be careful.

“This audit means that we’ve had the opportunity to reflect on our history and ensure that we learn from it and make sure it never happens again.

“We want to make sure we have a safe environment for our children, and we are blessed at the Cathedral right now because we have a lot of young people who are volunteering. We need to make sure that they are always safe and it’s somewhere that they want to be for the rest of their lives.

“I think any opportunity to improve who we are and what we do is a good one.”

Nicole Charnock is the Assistant Principal at St Joseph’s Primary School in Merewether. During the safeguarding audit, Nicole was tasked with pulling evidence together and measuring the schools compliance with the safeguarding standards.

“We really looked at all of our systems and practices and analysed how safeguarding is communicated to our staff, school community, families and students. We were continuously reminded that safeguarding is everybody’s responsibility.

“At first, looking at all the standards and what they entailed felt a little overwhelming. But then you recognise that within our school we’re doing these things every day, all of the time.

“We really do value safeguarding here at St Joseph’s. Our protection and value of students in our care was evident through this process.

“That was quite rewarding to have that feedback and know that we’re doing what we should be doing to keep students and families safe.”

The dedication of all involved was evident throughout the process, with the audit being broken into two distinct phases:

Phase One included the compilation of documentary and electronic evidence of compliance and was submitted on 29 September 2023. The Diocese’s submission was comprehensive, consisting of almost 43,000 words of text, supported by some 400 individual documents or web pages evidencing compliance with the Standards.

Phase Two was an on-site audit conducted by a team of seven personnel over a two-week period in mid-November. Members of the audit team visited the Diocese’s head offices, fourteen parishes (37% of the total parishes in the Diocese) and three schools. Over 100 diocesan clergy, employees, volunteers, parishioners, students and parents were interviewed as part of this process.

All of those who contributed to the audit results should be rightfully proud of their achievement.

While these results are outstanding, the Diocese will not become complacent in its efforts to improve. Over the coming year, the Diocese is determined to maintain the momentum on its safeguarding journey and continue the important work to improve its safeguarding structures, policies, practices and education so that the safeguarding of children and vulnerable persons is a wholly intrinsic part of everything the Diocese does.

The ACSL report of the audit of the Diocese is available for review and download from the ACSL website.

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