The first graduates of an international diploma course on safeguarding minors received a special greeting from Pope Francis, who encouraged the students and faculty to be courageous in their work against sexual abuse.

“I want to thank you and all your faculty for this commitment to the prevention of sexual abuse of minors,” the Pope said in a letter to the director of the Centre for Child Protection (CCP), the initiative that spearheaded the diploma course.

“You have undertaken great efforts for the prevention and healing of minors who have been sexually abused,” the Roman Pontiff said.

Addressing the new graduates, who received their diplomas June 14 at Rome's Pontifical Gregorian University, Francis wished them “courage and patience; be brave and committed. I assure you that you will receive many signs of gratitude. I pray for you and I ask you to do the same for me.”

The aim of the one-semester diploma course is to educate international student to be experts in preventing sexual abuse of minors.

This year's course, which ran from February to June, marks the first of what will be an annual program. It is the latest initiative of the CCP aimed at creating a proactive prevention strategy against abuse.

“The Catholic Church can use its potential as the biggest global player,” Fr. Hans Zollner, CCP president and vice-rector of the Gregorian University, told the graduates, who hail from 15 countries. “The snow-balling effect can already be seen in some parts of the world where the Church is in fact the frontrunner of safeguarding.”

“There is no magical change; a generational task lies in front of us. We pledge to work persistently and sustainably towards a world in which children and adolescents are safe.”

Fr. Zollner stressed how Christ said that the “Kingdom of God belongs to the little and vulnerable ones.”

“As Christians we believe that we have to do what is within our reach, and that the grace of God will bear fruit amid our shortcomings. In this hope we commend us, our students and all safeguarding work to our Lord.

Cardinal Fernando Filoni, Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, which has supported the CCP, stressed that “the prevention of sexual abuse of minors is a priority for the entire Church.”

“In a special way we want to put our efforts into the young Churches, in order that everything possible is being done to counter this sad phenomenon in schools, kindergartens, universities and parishes.”

A speaker at the graduation ceremony was Johannes-Wilhelm Roerig, a German representative of abuse victims, who spoke about efforts to safeguard children in his native country.

He spoke about how the Church in Germany “was shaken to its core by an abuse scandal” in 2010 at a Jesuit school in Berlin and a Benedictine-run boarding school near Munich; while the nation has come far in safeguarding minors since then, he added, there is still a long way to go.

“It is well-known that sexual abuse does not happen unintentionally,” Roerig said, but is a “well-planned criminal act” seen both in families and in institutions.

“Only with clear structures, rules and basic knowledge of sexual abuse can criminal strategies and plans be foiled,” he said. He stressed the importance of “laws for the introduction of prevention concepts,” which he said are absent in Germany and “probably in the majority of countries around the world.”

The CCP, which falls under the institute of psychology at the Gregorian University and was launched in 2012, is the global initiative of the Catholic Church aimed at advocating safeguarding measures and the protection of minors and vulnerable people on the international level.