To prevent abuse across the board, the Catholic Church must place disabled persons at the centre 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 conference, which ran from 18 to 21 June, brought global experts to Rome to discuss the relationship between safeguarding and disability.

During the conference, Fr Hans Zollner SJ, president of the institute, told Catholic News Service that the theme for this year’s conference was selected to bridge the gap 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 on 18 June.

After the conference was opened by Vatican secretary of state Cardinal Pietro Parolin, 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 not-for-profit that produces word-free books for people with disabilities that engage with topics ranging from relationships to surviving abuse.

We could actually change things quite substantially by getting priests to get to know disabled people.

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 when people consider disabled people as ‘other’ than non-disabled churchgoers. 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 by holding separate Masses for neurodivergent 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.

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

Fr Justin Glyn SJ, General Counsel for the Australian Jesuits 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,’ Fr Glyn said, ‘and disability is a classic demonstration of that.’

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Fr Justin Glyn SJ. (Photo by Fiona Basile for Melbourne Catholic.)

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.’

Dafne Aida Zapata Pratto, a psychologist at Antonio Ruiz de Montoya University in Peru, said that biased beliefs about disabled people prevent many within the Church and broader society from reaching out to people with disabilities and considering their needs.

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. 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.

Banner Image: 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 on 18 June. (Photo: CNS/courtesy of Pontifical Gregorian University.)