CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 18 May 2019

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Diocese issues new guidelines on handling sexual harassment

HONG KONG (SE): A new booklet, containing guidelines on handling complaints about sexual harassment in the diocese has been sent out to parishes so people can inform themselves about Church policy and the avenues available for dealing with complaints. Published in Chinese, an English version is due out soon, 
 
Dated February 20, the guidelines were approved by apostolic administrator, John Cardinal Tong Hon, and are applicable for lay people as well.
 
Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Ha Chi-shing told the Kung Kao Po on March 19, “We hope that such cases never happen. But if they do, there should be proper ways to deal with it,” urging parishes to encourage people to read the guidelines.
 
Bishop Ha said the guidelines were issued after views were gathered on the draft from diocesan clergy during a formation day in December. 
 
The guidelines highlight points to notice such as maintaining the confidentiality of the case and giving the complainant the benefit of the doubt, even if the defendant may be a respected person of a high status. Moreover, a complainant should not be forced to make any decisions on how to handle the case and should instead be clearly informed about all the choices available and the support services concerned. 
 
Under the guidelines, a Church authority is supposed to deal with the case as soon as possible as ignoring sexual harassment will only worsen the situation. 
 
The defendant should also be prevented from approaching the complainant during the investigation period, but the onus should not be on the complainant, for example, asking them to take annual leave. A complainant should also be protected against retaliation.
 
The Sexual Discrimination Ordinance, defines sexual harassment as unwelcome sexual advances made alone or with others which create an intimidating, hostile or offensive environment for the harassed person. The guidelines give some examples of sexual harassment in the Church: inappropriate touching under the pretext of spiritual formation, or the infringement of personal space under the excuse of praying together or showing concern.
 
The guidelines advise the harassed person to trust their own instincts and directly tell the harasser to stop unwelcome actions. After ensuring their personal safety, they are advised to make a written record detailing the incident as soon as possible and enquire about different ways to deal with the case.  
 
The diocese organised a related talk at St. Francis of Assisi parish, Shek Kip Mei, on March 2, in which parish staff and representatives gathered to learn about the prevention of sexual harassment and how to handle it, as well as the contents of the guidelines.
 
Ferrick Chu Chung-man, director of policy, research and training of the Equal Opportunities Commission, was invited to explain the definition of sexual harassment and the legal responsibilities involved. 
 
Father Francis Tse Kin-shing, moderator of the Working Committee for Handling Complaints of Sexual Abuse of Minors in Diocesan Organisations, was also invited to speak about another diocesan guideline dealing with preventive measures against sexual harassment.
 
The talk attracted around 160 people, including community leaders, Sunday school teachers, as well as representatives from Catholic schools and diocesan organisations. 
 
During the question and answer session, they raised many questions about different scenarios in parish life, such as whether a Sunday school teacher of the opposite sex can bring a child to the toilet.
 
Rosa Lai Yuk-fai, the president of the Central Council of Catholic Laity, told the Kung Kao Po on March 19 that the guidelines can remind people of the problems they tend to overlook, such as the invasion of personal space, and is a good measure to prevent sexual harassment. It also offers good support for parishes and Church organisations in formulating preventive policies, showing that they do not have to work alone on the issue. 
 
She hopes that recent news about sexual harassment will not compromise trust among people in the Church and that preventive measures can be carried out with an honest and cooperative attitude. 
 
She believes that the guidelines can also help to provide a safe environment for Sunday school students and reduce the worries of their parents.
 
In a pastoral letter dated March 6, Ash Wednesday, published in the Sunday Examiner on March 17, Cardinal Tong said that the protection of minors is one of the top priorities of the diocese. He stressed there is no space in the Church for a culture of silence and cover-up.
 
Referencing a case from 2002, he pointed out that since then, a Code of Conduct for Ministry to Minors as well as a Code of Action for Handling Complaints of Sexual Abuse of Minors in Diocesan Organisations was devised in 2009 and the Working Committee for Handling Complaints of Sexual Abuse of Minors in Diocesan Organisations was set up.

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