ROME – Experts who participated in a recent conference on Safeguarding and Disability have said that a broader inclusion and recognition of the belonging of disabled individuals in church life would make abuse prevention easier and is something all faithful must work towards.

Speaking to Crux, Anne Masters, who holds a doctorate in disability theology and who gave a presentation during the conference, said “what was interesting was, by bringing in folks with the experience on disability and practice and theology, it opened their eyes.”

“That was a real gift because quite frankly, this work often is in the boutique interest,” she said.

The conference, titled “Safeguarding and Disability,” was organized by the Pontifical Gregorian University’s Institute of Anthropology: Human Dignity and Care from June 18-21.

Led by German Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, a former member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, the institute holds an annual International Safeguarding Conference, and this year disability was chosen as the theme, given that disabled individuals constitute a significant percentage of those who have been or are being abused.

Cristina Gangemi, co-director of the Kairos Forum and an expert adviser to Vatican and other Catholic authorities on the topic of disability, told Crux that the conference was significant, as it marked the first time the Gregorian University had ever explored the topic of disability in such a prominent venue.

Reflecting on why the topic of disability was chosen to be highlighted at this juncture, Gangemi, who has collaborated with various Vatican offices for nearly a decade, said that “in the time of Pope Francis, a lot of the work that we’ve been doing has been that awareness of disability, not as a boutique issue, but something that is central to who the Church is.”

One fruit of that awareness raising, she said, was the recent conference on safeguarding and disability, which she and Masters agreed was more about “human flourishing,” with safeguarding being an extension of that.

According to the World Health Organization, roughly 16 percent of the global population experiences a significant disability, and statistics also show that individuals with disabilities are more likely to experience some form of harassment, discrimination, or violence in their lifetime.

Gangemi, who helped organize the preparatory sessions for the conference, said organizers “were extremely open and really committed to thinking about disability, not only within the context of sexual abuse, but in the context of what it means to be a person in the Church.”

Vatican Secretary of State Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin gave a keynote address at the conference, noting that in recent years “the international community has made significant progress in recognizing the rights of people with disabilities.”

“Unfortunately, this has not yet occurred worldwide. Wherever this happens, a more just and caring society can flourish, where belonging is not a slogan to be used in politically correct speeches, but a practice,” he said.

Parolin said the conference provided an opportunity “to overcome different barriers by gathering and discussing ways to combat abuse, an injustice that strikes all, disabled people and non-disabled ones,” and he stressed the importance of preventing and accompanying every case of abuse, but especially clerical abuse, particularly when it involves a person who is disabled.

Zollner in introductory remarks voiced hope that the discussion would “foster a deeper understanding of the complex challenges we face and inspire innovative approaches to safeguarding.”

The focus on disability, he said, “aims to address a critical issue and challenge.”

Masters, who spoke about inclusion and the need to overcome certain myths when it comes to disability, told Crux that “There are no special needs, only human needs, but some require more intentionality,” and the goal, especially in church life, is “always for full, meaningful participation.”

Oftentimes people with disabilities are seen either with pity or as an opportunity for charity, and they are often viewed as having a “holy innocence” and a special connection to Jesus and his suffering on the cross because of their condition, she said.

These individuals are also often seen, she said, as either not fully human, or as having a special love from God that makes the closeness of their community less necessary.

Masters said none of these are true, and that “where we are today, a lot of folks with disabilities are not really supported in growth and really flourishing their abilities to, to their capacity.”

Inclusion is the key not only to making the Church better, but also for safeguarding, she said, saying, “if we’re actually supporting human flourishing, that’s a way that enriches the body of Christ collectively, as well as increases safety for folks with disabilities as well as safety for all.”

To this end, during her presentation Masters showed the music video of the song “Spaces” by James Ian celebrating the accomplishments of those diagnosed with Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA). Ian himself has SMA and partnered with others in Hollywood with the same diagnosis to draw attention to the disabled community.

Stressing the importance of proper and effective communication in interacting with disabled individuals, Special Educational Needs and Social Communication specialist Mike Harris lamented that “the situation is so many of our folks, a lot of our folks, they lack a voice.”

Teaching those who lack verbal communication abilities and learning how to interact them is especially important in safeguarding, he said, telling Crux that oftentimes, “that lack of voice and being able to express yourself, explain possibly what’s happened, identify sort of where, when, by who, etc., just absolutely evades them, and everything that that will bring to them in a safeguarding situation.”

Harris said he offered tips on practical techniques to use that can be put into practice in everyday life, such as multimodal communication.

“Communication when you think about what it enables and what it facilitates and what it brings you in life, you know, it’s not just about safeguarding it,” he said, saying it’s more about flourishing.

Asked about the Vatican’s definition of “vulnerable persons” and the Church’s handling of it in canon law in light of debate over the classification of disabled individuals as “vulnerable,” both Masters and Gangemi said that while they are not canonists, what is important is that the person is seen and valued beyond whatever limitations they might have.

“I’ve always resisted identifying all people who live with an experience of difference, of disability, physical, intellectual, different ways of being, as being characterized or defined by a particular characteristic of their life, which could include being vulnerable,” Gangemi said.

Gangemi said that vulnerability to her “means to be open to being injured. Every single person within their existence is open to being vulnerable, but it cannot characterize our lives. You cannot reduce a human person’s existence, in essence, down to one particular characteristic of their life.”

“Now, to be able to safeguard people who live with an experience of disability, we need to be able to say we must safeguard the vulnerable,” she said, saying the Church’s attitude must not be to protect disabled people because they are vulnerable, but because “of the inherent dignity and the essence” of that person.

The Church, she said, must say, “that person is someone who we’ve got to safeguard because they’re valuable, and because they’re valuable, their vulnerability has to be safeguarded as well.”

“I see the difficulty and the challenge of defining, characterizing people and seeking to find a theology that matches that, rather than valuing them first and understanding that their vulnerability is part of that value. That’s how I see it,” she said.

Asked about the ongoing Synod of Bishops on Synodality and its effort to give a greater voice to marginalized groups in the Church, and whether disabled people have had enough representation, Gangemi said the Vatican, particularly Sister Veronica Donatello in her role as a consultant with the Dicastery for Communications, as well as the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, have done a lot in recent years.

However, she said that based on conference participation, there is an awareness in various countries in Asia and Africa, but there is a “gap in awareness” of the problem in Europe, apart from Italy, where “a lot of work has been done.”

According to Masters, stigmas about people with disabilities still exist, and that “if we were to live it right, then listening with empathy is one of those is one of the practices expected to be found in synodal communities.”

“That’s what’s really critical for that identification, to listen with someone and see them as a person, not a diagnosis, and then as a project to fix,” she said.

She said the conference provided a key opportunity for experts in the field of disability to expand their networks, which she said allows participants to learn more about disability itself and foster “real participation.”

“I hope maybe that’s the groundswell movement that may help us to move beyond the boutique interest,” she said, saying, “what we know is that our Church has a lot of beautiful theology that is lived very imperfectly.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on X: @eliseannallen