Driving a cultural shift: “Child protection is everybody’s business”

By Elizabeth McFarlane
Claire Pirola: "The only way we're going to see a cultural shift is by giving a voice to survivors and the people who are close to them." Photo: Elizabeth McFarlane.

Claire Pirola is the new Manager of the Office for Safeguarding and Professional Standards. She comes to the Diocese of Parramatta from the Catholic Education Office in the Archdiocese of Sydney, where she worked for three years as part of the Safety, Wellbeing and Professional Services Team.

Claire’s role includes general oversight of the Diocese’s engagement with external authorities including the NSW Ombudsman’s Office, the Office of the Children’s Guardian and NSW Police.

“I have a passion for being a voice for minorities and for those who are vulnerable,” Claire said. “Children are one of a number of vulnerable people in our community. I want to ensure that they are seen and they are heard.”

Claire said she wants to be part of the vision of the Office of Safeguarding and Professional Standards. “It is breaking new ground in setting up structures and models that I have not seen elsewhere.”

The needs and the work of the office are constantly changing and Claire said one of their main roles is to drive a cultural shift in the community.

“We can do the best that we can here but unless that’s supporting a shift in the community and in our parishes, then nothing much is going to change. “We all have a responsibility. Child protection is everybody’s business.

“The only way we’re going to see a cultural shift is by giving a voice to survivors and the people who are close to them. They hold us accountable and tell us what we missed or have done wrong previously.”

Claire’s role has its emotional and personal challenges, but it’s the growth she can see in the community and in survivors that affirms her work.

“Listening to people and walking with those who have suffered trauma is hard. We need to ensure that that sharing is not immobilising but that it mobilises us.

“When you see a change in how people respond to the topic it is affirming. People can now talk about abuse and the abuse in the Church. Only by being able to talk openly about it can we begin to prevent it.

“Many people identify with the Church and so when they see people in the Church have abused children or covered up abuse, and the reputation of the Church is harmed, it is personal for them. They personally feel harmed or their own personal faith feels harmed.

“We have to acknowledge that this is part of our Church and who we are – as painful as that may be.

“The change in the community is two-fold in that there is now a conversation about the abuse in the Church and because of that survivors are now able to seek healing and the Church leadership has opportunities to make change.”

Claire said that because of the Royal Commission into Institutional responses to Child Sexual Abuse it was now permissible to talk about abuse. “Some people haven’t spoken about it for almost 50 years. We need to invite people to come forward and support them when they do.”

Claire’s role will involve responding to referrals or calls from people within the community who have concerns about abuse and to report any allegations of abuse.

“We assess the issue and we look at the most appropriate response. It’s about managing that and making sure it goes to the correct authorities and avenues within the Church and outside the Church.”

Claire is looking forward to getting to know the different parishes and agencies in the Diocese.

“I’m not from the Diocese so I don’t know everyone yet. I’m looking forward to working with and getting to know the parishes and agencies to see how best to support them in achieving the vision of a cultural shift and clearer response.

“I won’t be working alone. We’ll be working closely with the other dioceses and looking state wide and nationally so that people don’t slip through systems. It’s a global issue and we are working to stand together.

“The team here is fantastic and it’s been an easy transition. They have made me feel very welcome.”

For more information about the work of the Office of Safeguarding & Professional Standards visit www.safeguarding.org.au

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