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Bishop steps up child protection

Taking lead: the Most Reverend Wesley Spiewak, Bishop of the Diocese of Hamilton

More than 130 members of the Catholic Church have taken child sex abuse prevention training after their leader made it mandatory for anyone who worked with young people, it was revealed yesterday.

The Most Reverend Wesley Spiewak, Bishop of the Diocese of Hamilton, said he insisted that priests, teachers and others involved with children attended a session run by the charity Saving Children and Revealing Secrets.

He said he wanted to increase knowledge about child sexual abuse, which has rocked the Catholic Church, so that the island’s young people would be better protected.

The bishop explained his reasons for the move in a letter to the faithful that asked Catholics to attend one of two Scars training sessions.

He said: “Up to this point, and I hope it’s going to stay this way, we don’t have allegations against the Catholic clergy in Bermuda, but the absence of evidence doesn’t mean evidence of absence.

“I don’t want to be passive, I want to be proactive.”

Bishop Spiewak said when he arrived in Bermuda 3½ years ago, one of his first questions was about programmes used to protect young people.

He added he was told that, after advice from other bishops, the island’s Catholic Church followed a US-based programme called Virtus.

The Polish-born bishop said he had been shocked by international reports of child abuse by priests and the lack of appropriate action by the Catholic hierarchy.

Bishop Spiewak added that news reports from the US about “crimes of paedophilia being committed by clergy and being somehow covered by the bishops” had caused him great concern.

He said: “I learnt about Scars and I have to also say, that in response to what had happened in the American Catholic Church recently, last year especially, I was looking for the best response in our own country.”

Bishop Spiewak added that he had looked for the “best opportunity” to increase awareness and protection of children in Bermuda and asked for advice from a psychologist who was a practising Catholic.

He said the psychologist “strongly” recommended that adults who worked with children and teenagers attended Scars training, which offers the Darkness to Light Stewards of Children programme designed to prevent, recognise and react responsibly to child sexual abuse.

Bishop Spiewak said: “I strongly believe that awareness, consciousness of things, is the point when people understand how important certain things are.”

He added that he had met a survivor of abuse who was targeted by a priest in Poland and that had deepened his understanding.

The bishop explained: “Listening to this man, who after 50 years was talking about what happened with tears in his eyes, and looking at him, it somehow made me aware — even if I was aware before — that there was another dimension of awareness.”

Bishop Spiewak wrote in a letter posted on the Scars website: “The sexual abuse of minors by the clerics of our church and the lack of accurate and decisive reactions by our hierarchy has caused much pain, disappointment and anger in the hearts and minds of all of us.

“This frustration is profound and calls for justice and action.

“It is important that lessons be learnt.

“The best way of protecting minors must be provided together with the most efficient methods of prevention.”

Bishop Spiewak added: “It is my requirement that all who are involved with children and teens as catechists, mentors, teachers, youth ministers, priests — me included — must attend the Scars training.

“If they are already certified by Scars but their certificate is older than three years, they will have to repeat the training.”

He told the public: “I also invite any of you who would be interested in attending this training, even if you are not directly engaged in a ministry to minors. There is no cost for the individual.

“Everything we do to increase our awareness of the problem is beneficial in creating a better protection and prevention environment.”

The bishop said that at least 75 people attended the first training session in April and almost 60 went to the second one last week.

He added that statements from abuse victims shown in film clips at the sessions increased awareness of “how important it is for all of us who are adults to protect minors and to react to any suspicion, that it is important for us to have tools and to be proactive”.

Bishop Spiewak said his congregation welcomed the opportunity to take part in the training and found it provided them with a better understanding of the problem.

Debi Ray-Rivers, the founder and executive director of Scars, said: “Scars is beyond grateful to Bishop Wes for his authentic leadership, his boldness, courage, and for his heart for children.

“The letter speaks volumes about a bishop who takes child protection very seriously.”

For more information about Scars and its training sessions, visit the website at scarsbermuda.com