Next month on December 8th, Australia's largest Catholic youth event will begin in Perth. Five thousand children and young people are expected to converge on the Perth Convention and Exhibition Centre to begin celebrations of the first day of the Australian Catholic Youth Festival (ACYF), an initiative of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference undertaken by the ACBC Office for Youth.

There will be school groups, parish groups, under 18s and over 18s in attendance. The three day festival will feature workshops, music stages, an expo hall, a vigil mass, plenary sessions and a pilgrimage walk to the closing mass site. The majority of Australia's bishops will attend over the three days and presenters from around the world will engage with young people on the theme of this year's event: 'Listen to what the Spirit is saying'. 

The attendees will be comprised of:

  • 2500 children and young people aged 14-17 (majority travelling with school groups);
  • 1,600 young adults aged 18-30;
  • 600 adult and group leaders (group leaders, school teachers, etc); and
  • 200+ expo stallholders, 150 volunteers and staff, together with 100+ presenters and performers.

The logistical challenges alone in coordinating an event of this size are daunting but the safeguarding challenges may be even bigger. CPSL interviewed ACYF Director Malcolm Hart to talk through some of the safeguarding measures taken to ensure that children and young people are safe to engage and participate in this event.


Image courtesy of Australian Catholic Youth Festival and Malcolm Hart

How do you do risk mapping for an event of this size?
We have built a risk matrix over the past three festivals. This is taken into consideration during each risk mapping and mitigation process for each festival. In 2017 we engaged a professional risk consultant to assist in identifying and managing the risks associated with such a large event. We work closely with the hosting diocesan staff to identify and respond to local risk culture and practices. We also partner with Catholic Church Insurance (CCI) to review and provide advice on the holistic risk policy and procedures of ACYF. CCI review our major contracts (venue, production, etc.) for insurance and risk advice before we sign.

We also work closely with key stakeholders such as the venue and its security staff, local police and government to collaborate on hosting such a large gathering in a public space. We also audit and ensure compliance of all contractors at ACYF, which includes written inclusion of a dress code for identification whilst on site.

Given this is an event with under 18s and over 18s, how do you manage these mixed age group risks?
The safety of all attendees is the highest priority for the Youth Festival. All
 leaders are required to supply Working With Children Checks (WWCC), as required by their state government. These WWWC registrations are checked before the festival begins.

We also work to induct and train volunteers to observe behaviours while on-site in partnership with senior safeguarding officers, and respond to issues on-site. We also have a comprehensive security management plan which is needed to monitor the overall behaviour of crowds.

The ACYF has comprehensive terms and conditions, codes of conduct and group registration processes. Under 18s can only attend ACYF as part of a group where the group coordinator has signed permissions from parents to attend ACYF. This is written into the ACYF terms and conditions of registration.

We encourage the majority of participants to register as groups. The group coordinator takes on the majority of responsibility for supervising their group, so although we ensure a safe environment, we do not supervise the students and those under 18s who are there: that responsibility is the group coordinators’; whether that be a school or a parish, every group has only one group coordinator and they are responsible for ensuring the safety of their group no matter if they are over or under 18.

Group coordinators have to make sure that all of their group have accepted the terms and conditions and the code of conduct, they have to supervise the group and carry their medical forms, so that if there are any issues with young people, then we can connect with their group coordinator and respond immediately. The group coordinators play an important part in our overall management and safety of the festival. We usually meet with the group coordinators every day. We offer a meeting so they can meet with the festival coordinators, and we can ask: What’s happening with you? What can we do to respond? How’s your experience been? That’s a good way for us to keep on top of things as they happen in the festival, and not just think that everything will be okay. We try to meet with them every day or have an open door policy so they can come and meet with us and talk with us about what is happening and how young people are participating, and what they want to see happen as well.

Have children and young people been involved in conversations about safeguarding for this event?
Things like the code of conduct, and other sort of participant driven behaviour is really important.

A great initiative from Catholic Education WA involved a number of people from their offices gathering a number of young people to talk about the event. They asked them that if they (as young people) are coming to this event, which many of them have never been to before, what they would want it to look like and how they wanted to feel when they were there. A number of young people said that they were focused on creating a safe environment so that they could be open to engage with something new. Because they hadn’t been before and they didn’t know what it was, they didn’t want to be judged; they wanted an environment where they wold be respected and feel safe about being open to what was happening there.

So the feedback we got was about the respect between participants and also between the adults, and allowing young people to be able to engage freely, not to be over-directed or over-supervised as such so they couldn’t be themselves and experience this openly during the event. So a lot of feedback about respect and engagement about how they could engage safely without any judgement from their peers and leaders (was provided from the consultation).

Image courtesy of ACYF and Malcolm Hart

Is there anything different in your safeguarding approach (new measures etc.) this year compared to previous years?
There are two ways safeguarding has changed since the first festival.

The first is in how group coordinators and those attending respond to the level of safeguarding. One of the initial strategies was to set a pretty high standard and use the festival as an example of how youth ministers should be working in ways of safeguarding. In 2013 we had a lot of people questioning "Why do you want working with children’s checks? Why do you want these sorts of things?" and we responded by saying, "Well, this is the new norm, this is where you need to be to build a safe environment". We don’t get that push back anymore; this is part of the normal culture, people have the information and the policies and procedures and strategies in their own local ministries to respond almost immediately, so I have seen how locals and those who attend respond quite differently over the last four festivals.

The other side of that is that we have always taken a pretty high level of safeguarding in regards to young people but in the last two festivals, particularly in Sydney, our risk management and safety management overall has dramatically increased. In running an event of this size, the level of policy development, planning development, the number of different plans we need to have to meet legislation, and different venues have different requirements, so we need to consider all that...I think even working with people who haven’t worked with an event of this level before, they are surprised by the level of detail required.                                                                                                                                        

What is your advice for other entities organising events for young people?
The partnerships you create are important. One of the best partnerships we have is with Catholic Church Insurance (CCI). CCI provided risk consultant advice the whole way through. They bring to the table a different perspective from what we are used to; this is why we need to form good partnerships. We might think "we have done this before, we did this last year" but there is always someone coming from a different direction, looking through a new lens, and this is why CCI has been so important in the things they bring to an event like this – we got some professional risk advice in 2017 which was really useful as well. They think of things we are not used to thinking about in Church, so getting some outside perspective is really good.

I think the other advice would be to do more than the bare minimum. Often with the bare minimum there are gaps and loopholes in legislation and other things, so I think it is important for you to have your own standards. And sometimes that it is a conflict of legislation, so you need to find your own way of meeting those standards. So for example, for many expo holders who come along to the festival they might not work directly with young people, not all the time, so there are a number of exclusions, in working with children legislation in different states that do not require us – and in some cases don’t allow us to ask them for a Working With Children Check – so we have moved to asking for national police checks which we can and also to set a supervision plan in place as well to make sure that is a safe environment, because we cannot always rely just on what the legislation says.

It’s one of those things where you have to develop your own standards and work hard to meet them and not just say "it is not required by government or diocese" – you have to think about the safe environment you want to create, and for us, it is all about engagement. If young people do not feel safe in that environment they are not going to listen to what is being said, they are not going to engage in the process – their engagement in the festival is our goal so we cannot afford for them not to feel safe. We do everything we can to make them feel safe, and in all honesty we are working in a secular environment that is sometimes not used to working in an environment with this level of safety of young people. They do learn a bit from us as well: as soon as we say we are from the Catholic Church and we’ve got some pretty high standards about working with young people,  they pay attention and are really quite surprised at the level that we go to ensure the safety of those that are present.

The thing that has caught my attention over the last two festivals is that safeguarding is not just about checking for WWCC or for people who might wander into a venue and cause havoc; it’s really about every element that we do, so the level of safety that we have to go to – from the plans, management plans, security plans, liaison with local police and other stakeholders, even down to food and water, you know, making sure there is enough water on-site and it is accessible-  that goes into safeguarding and wellbeing of young people too. It's not just about safeguarding from abuse, it is really their health and wellbeing, and we do not want any young people hurt in anyway through their behaviour or our behaviour.  It all ties together through safeguarding, all this level of safety we need to bring to the event is about keeping them safe. The key goal for us (in young people attending the festival) is for them to hear what we have to say, so we have to make sure there are no obstructions and no reason for them to get distracted from that. That’s why we put so much detail into the safeguarding and risk management of our events.