International News

Safeguarding: Church Must Place Disabled Persons at Center, Experts Say

Sheila Hollins, a founding member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors and founder of Books Beyond Words, speaks at a conference on safeguarding and disability hosted by the Pontifical Gregorian University’s Institute of Anthropology: Interdisciplinary Studies on Human Dignity and Care in Rome June 18, 2024. (Photo: CNS/courtesy Pontifical Gregorian University)

By Justin McLellan

ROME (CNS) — To prevent abuse across the board, the Catholic Church must place disabled persons at the center of its safeguarding efforts and ministry, speakers said at an international safeguarding conference in Rome.

Hosted by the Pontifical Gregorian University’s Institute of Anthropology: Interdisciplinary Studies on Human Dignity and Care, the June 18-21 conference brought global experts to Rome to discuss the relationship between safeguarding and disability.

During the conference, Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, president of the institute, told Catholic News Service that the theme for this year’s edition of the conference was selected to bridge the gap that exists between safeguarding — referring to practices meant to address and prevent emotional, physical and sexual abuse — and caring for people with disabilities.

“The framework is there but very often it is not really linked to the real needs of the people on the ground, of those who have been abused, and so we are here to learn from those with disabilities what their particular needs are and what the church can do as one of the key players in the health system worldwide in the implementation and inculturation of these different models that we have,” he told CNS June 18.

After the conference was opened by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, Sheila Hollins, delivered the opening keynote address. Hollins was a founding member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors and founded Books Beyond Words — a non-profit that produces word-free books for people with disabilities that engage with topics from relationships to surviving abuse.

She said “although disabled people might be a minority demographically, they’re at considerably greater risk (of abuse), and if disclosure was easier for them they may actually constitute a majority of abused people.”

She told CNS that many “unconscious biases” put disabled persons at risk of abuse, such as the perception that nobody would abuse a disabled person because of their impairment. Disabled people also face additional barriers “to being heard, to being able to explain, to being able to understand” their abuse, she said.

Hollins, a Catholic and parent of five disabled adult children, said those biases and barriers can arise within the church by considering disabled people as “other” than non-disabled church-goers. As a result, the church can perpetuate structural exclusion of disabled people, such as by not creating space for wheelchair users in the congregation or holding separate Masses for neurally divergent people.

Hollins suggested that a way to root sensitivity to the experience of disability in the church could be to have every seminarian “get to know a disabled person and their family, their lives, and continue knowing them, because they’ve become part of their circle.”

“I think that we could actually change things quite substantially by getting priests to get to know disabled people,” she said.

Laureen Lynch-Ryan, coordinator of deaf ministry in the Archdiocese of Washington who presented her talk at the conference in American Sign Language, told CNS through a sign-language interpreter that while there has been a lot of research about the disability community and abuse, “specifically within the deaf community there is very little research regarding abuse and the church.”

Additionally, she stressed that direct input from disabled and deaf people must be involved in the development of safeguarding policies. Safeguarding training, Lynch-Ryan said, “goes through hearing systems” and is developed by “people that don’t have experience working with deaf people or even people with disabilities.”

Maryann Barth, course designer at the University of Dayton and board member of the Deaf Catholic Youth Initiative for the Americas, said the conference is key to exploring ways of overcoming the obstacles involved in protecting people with disabilities, especially since “the main barrier that we face is communication.”

Barth told CNS through an interpreter that in her presentation at the conference she aimed to explain “the theory behind language deprivation, language dysfluency,” which she said “really impacts deaf children who have experienced abuse.”

There needs to be a framework for what hearing people can do to safeguard deaf people, she said, and help for those that have been abused, “because if somebody were to come to try to disclose (abuse), the other barrier is the ability to express what they experienced, and we need to be able to be present and help them navigate that.”

Dafne Aida Zapata Pratto, a psychologist at Antonio Ruiz de Montoya University in Peru, said that biased beliefs about disabled people prevent society and the church from reaching out to people with disabilities and considering their needs in order to be fully integrated into the community

For example, she told CNS, that a widespread myth among Peruvians is that disability is a “divine punishment” for a sin or error committed by a family and that “many families have prejudices against their disabled children.”

Combatting that attitude “is an important challenge for the church,” Zapata said. “How can the church change the image of God and make people understand that disability is not a punishment?”

The church’s response must involve including disabled people more centrally in the life of the church but also considering “the type of message and image of God that we express and share with others,” she said.

Jesuit Father Justin Glyn, general counsel for the Australian Province of the Society of Jesus and a visually impaired person, said that as society becomes increasingly individualistic and achievement-based, the church has a key role in upholding a sense of community that is central to the experience of disability.

“The disabled world is the world of interdependence,” he told CNS. “We may need assistance in various ways, but we can provide it also.”

Similarly, Catholics professing the communion of saints “don’t believe that salvation is an individual thing,” he said.

“We are the people who actually are invested in each other in Christ,” Father Glyn said,” and disability is a classic demonstration of that.”