Working in safeguarding for Catholic Church entities could be a test of faith for some, but for Tom Isbester it is his faith that motivates his work, writes Debra Vermeer.
“The drive actually comes from my faith,” says Tom, who is the Safeguarding Officer for the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. “To be a part of that culture-shift in the Church and to help the most marginalised and victimised people in the Church (those who have been abused by Church personnel) makes your faith stronger actually.”
Tom, who is married with two young children, began working in the safeguarding area after a number of years working as a police officer.
Born in Sydney (and a lifelong Canterbury Bulldogs supporter), he grew up on the Central Coast and was educated at St Edward’s College, East Gosford.
After leaving school, he took up primary school teaching at university, but found it wasn’t his cup of tea.
“I didn’t really enjoy it,” he says. “But I had a mate in the cops who said I should apply to join the police, so I applied and I got in. I’d been out of school for about five or six years by then. I made a lot of good friends in the police and it definitely gave me a good investigations background.”
After leaving the police force, Tom moved into local government, working in the investigations area which covered a wide scope of issues, such as environmental compliance, breach of development applications, illegal dumping, abandoned vehicles – any offences under the Local Government Act.
He also took up a welfare degree at university. “As I was finishing my degree, I saw a job advertised in safeguarding for the Diocese of Parramatta,” he says.
“I was attracted to it because it had an investigations scope, which was my trade at the time, but it incorporated the whole social work and welfare aspect as well, and it had the Church and faith element, so it combined a lot of my interests.”
The work involved professional standards investigations and compliance, but also training and education, and outreach to survivors.
“I’m very grateful for my time at Parramatta. I learnt a lot and I also feel we were able to make big inroads in culture-shift and safeguarding,” he says.
When an opportunity came up in December last year to take up the position of Safeguarding Coordinator for the Sisters of the Good Samaritan, Tom felt it was the right time to make the move. He has also returned to university to study for a Master’s in Law.
He says the Good Sams’ commitment to safeguarding and their foundational direction of being ‘good neighbour’ provides a firm basis for his work.
“It’s been there right from the start with the Good Sams. It’s in their charism. It’s something they’ve been doing for 160 years, working with the most marginalised women and children,” he says.
“They’re not only committed to having the highest safeguarding standards, but to giving children a voice and making sure they’re involved in decision making. The Good Sams have been doing that forever.
“It makes my job quite easy because there doesn’t need to be a culture shift. They’ve already been doing it so well. Now, it’s about meeting the compliance aspect and continuing to strengthen practices.”
Sister Veronica Hoey SGS is the Congregation’s Professional Standards Advisor. “It is our deepest regret that we have made mistakes in the past and have failed to protect some children,” she says.
“We are committed to accompanying all those who have been harmed in our care or are impacted by the traumatic experience of childhood sexual abuse along a pathway towards healing. In a spirit of co-responsibility, we commit to doing everything possible to ensure that wherever we minister now and into the future, we provide safe and nurturing environments for children and adults at risk.”
Tom says the Sisters and staff have all been willing and motivated to do the required training and soon oblates will undertake training.
“Our training provides a general overview of safeguarding so that everyone across the organisation knows about the Child Safe culture and lives and breathes child safety, through training, resources, and guidelines on how to respond to disclosures,” he says.
“Then we’ll move on from that fundamental safeguarding training to expand into more in-depth modules so that everyone knows what it is about and can take it on and absorb it.”
Since going to work for the Good Sams, Tom has also had the opportunity to work part time for three other religious congregations. “It’s good,” he says. “You get to see the whole gamut of the Church.”
Tom says he believes the Church is taking the necessary steps to change the culture which allowed for decades of abuse of children and vulnerable adults, as outlined in the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
“I think there is a firm understanding now that you have to be proactive in this sort of work,” he says. “You can’t be reactive. That’s exactly how we ended up in the position we were in, where there was nothing in place to ensure it didn’t happen and wouldn’t happen in the future. We’ve got to be thinking three or four steps ahead.
“At the end of the day there is a compliance aspect that maybe some people don’t like but overshadowing that is a firm understanding that this work is really at the core of the Church. We need to be ensuring that everyone in our care is looked after. It’s in our core values. It’s in everything we do.”
Tom says he’s seen a real shift in people’s attitudes to safeguarding over the years.
“Everyone accepts that it’s part of their ministry and it’s a shared responsibility,” he says. “We can build on that and all move forward together.
“I hold great hope for the future.”
For more information about the Sisters of the Good Samaritan and the Safeguarding of Children, Young People and Adults at Risk, click here.