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Back to Basics: Preventing Child Sexual Abuse after #MeToo and Larry Nassar

With the #MeToo movement still going strong, the unacceptability of sexual harassment and sexual abuse in our society continues to grow. Yet at the same time, tragic stories like the Larry Nassar scandal, where perhaps hundreds of young girls were sexually abused over many years, continue to surface. Organizations desire to stop these horrific events, yet still falter, struggling to understand how to create a safe environment for the children in their care. How can organizations who work with children keep them safe?

Child protection is a serious undertaking, and even the most diligent organizations cannot completely eliminate the risk. But implementing some simple, concrete changes can build towards a world where no child has to endure the pain of sexual abuse. While we recommend taking an individualized approach tailored for your organization, this article reviews basics, focusing on two steps organizations can take to help protect kids.

1. Develop a child safety program and follow it! 

Adequate child safety policies are gradually becoming the standard of care. Strong evidence shows that good policies protect children and protect the organization. Prevention should be based on “situational factors” or “routine activities theory.” This concept teaches that child sexual abuse requires three factors: first, a person motivated to abuse; second, a potential victim; and third, lack of a “capable guardian,”1 or put another way, an environment that gives access. Studies show that addressing these three factors reduces child sexual abuse by limiting chances to commit it.2 Interventions based on “situational factors” can include policies, screening, and training adults and children.

Sexual Misconduct and Behavior Policies

Codes of conduct should apply for all staff and volunteers and establish clear standards of behavior. These standards are not just for child sexual abuse, but for other behaviors that are boundary violations or lack integrity or Christian purity, such as dirty jokes, inappropriate touching that is not sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and adult pornography. Policies can address the alcohol, pornography, and drugs that often accompany child sexual abuse. A religious organization has the advantage of legal protection to enforce its religious moral standards. Conduct policies should be widely available to all staff and be incorporated into training.

Criminal Background Checks

Criminal background checks are considered key in child abuse prevention. The Catholic Church has run well over two million checks on employees and volunteers.3 Anecdotally, very few, if any, sexual offenders, have been uncovered through those background checks. Possibly, background checks scare offenders away so that they do not apply. It’s also possible that background checks waste time and money. Even if this is so, background checks show that the organization takes child protection seriously and is not negligent. 

Applications and References

Checking references is a useful screening tool, yet is likely to be skimped or overlooked. Former employers are often reluctant to discuss reasons an employee left.4 A written permission and waiver of liability included in the application packet allows former employers to be candid without fear of retribution. Many former employers are much more willing to discuss a former employee with a written reference release and waiver of liability in hand.5 Similar standards apply for volunteers.

Background questionnaires in the employment or volunteer application can be surprisingly useful. In addition to asking for typical information, such as history of working with children, religious organizations can include questions in line with their religious morals and hiring practices. Screening sample documents are available through organizations like MinistrySafe, Child Safety and Protection Network, or the organization’s insurer. The organization’s attorney should also review application and screening documents.

Although it seems intuitively obvious that any prospective employee with a history of inappropriate behavior would simply lie on a questionnaire, this is not necessarily true. Later review of such questionnaires after there has been a problem often shows red flags on the form, such as questions not answered, or dubious answers that should have triggered further exploration.

Training of Staff, Volunteers, Adults, and Children

Training is critical to a good child protection program. Policies and screening attempt to weed out potential offenders. As this may not always be successful, the way a mission can best protect children is to train them. If children know what behavior is not acceptable and what steps to take if they are threatened, they are less likely to be victims.

Training also addresses the “capable guardian,” or environmental access. If all other adults understand red flags and danger signals, and see the first signs of boundary violations, they are more likely to take action to protect children. Sadly, other adults often comment in retrospect that they thought certain behavior was peculiar, but did not know it was a problem. Clear understanding of a safe environment also empowers adults to take appropriate action rather than being afraid to cause trouble.

Implementing a child safety policy that works for the organization is key. Organizations must ensure that whatever policy they put in place, it is one that can be followed in practice. Having a beautifully drafted policy is worthless if it simply sits on the shelf.

2. Work toward creating a culture of truth and action.

Allegations of child abuse are not quite as inevitable as death and taxes, but still will happen. Leaders must be ready to face them despite their sense of shock and distaste. They must resist any impulse to denial, but also keep an open mind and not jump to conclusions. Not responding well can have disastrous consequences: further hurt to victims; disruption to ministry; injustice to alleged offenders; gossip and loss of morale; negative publicity; and legal action. Good policies equip administrators to handle these crisis situations. Good responses cost time and money—but nothing in comparison to the downstream costs of damage to lives and legal action.

Reporting—Both Internal and External 

Organizations should have procedures to report suspected child abuse and sexual misconduct. Reports of child abuse and also of other forms of misconduct need to be made within the organization, and should trigger an investigation. Depending on the nature of the allegations, reports must also be made to law enforcement authorities.

An internal report and subsequent discipline alone are appropriate for immoral adult activity such as sexual harassment or behavior that violates the Christian principles or policies of the organization (such as promiscuity, adultery or other illicit sexual behavior). They are also appropriate for boundary violations with a child that are not child abuse. Whether or not there is an external report, an internal report should trigger an investigation that can result in exoneration or administrative discipline.

Laws across the United States (and many other countries) require reporting a reasonable suspicion of child abuse promptly to law enforcement or other appropriate governmental agency. A prompt but brief preliminary investigation may or may not be appropriate to determine if specific facts support reasonable suspicion. All U.S. states now have mandatory child abuse reporting. External reports to law enforcement should be made in accordance with the law. Reporting abuse involving minors may include historic claims, especially for sexual abuse.6 This is true even if law enforcement is unlikely to take action, because it shows good faith. Such a report does not mean that a finding of abuse has been made. Failure to report may have serious consequences for individuals with knowledge, and for the organization.

Internal Investigations

A key piece toward developing a culture where people feel comfortable reporting suspected abuse is knowing that the organization will take each and every report seriously. Investigating reported child abuse is often a complex undertaking—the organization must consider whether an internal investigation is needed if there is a law enforcement or social services investigation; who will conduct the investigation; how it will make findings; and how it will act on those findings. Some investigations can be handled internally, while others should be done by an outside team of professionals which may include legal counsel. Some investigations are purely for purposes of church discipline. Organizations can develop policies to help make these decisions when the occasion arises.

Organizational Culture

The culture of an organization—and how staff, volunteers, and kids experience that culture—has an impact on reporting and investigations, and may also have an impact on the likelihood of abuse. In addition to having reporting policies and procedures in place, the organization should evaluate its interior culture to see if volunteers and staff will likely carry out policies in a meaningful, helpful way. Also, would victims be willing to report? The report on Penn State, for instance, disclosed a culture that was not favorable to reporting because of problems with power and control in the hierarchy.7 The Catholic Church has worked hard to change the culture that fostered “isolation, separation, and obedience” and a “code of silence” that helped to make child abuse possible in the Church.8 Culture changes are possible, but take great intentionality.

Outreach to Victims and Healing Responses

If someone reports abuse, the report should be received promptly and sensitively, and taken seriously. Many victims feel they have had to fight to get any recognition of what has happened to them. Rather than being embraced, they have been rebuffed and wounded further.

Organizations must give attention to healing and reconciliation for victims of child sexual abuse. Responding to victims in a strictly legal fashion is inadequate and does even more damage to them.

Many victims express a primary need for someone to hear their story and affirm that what happened to them was evil. When abuse has been substantiated, an apology from the organization, given by someone high in leadership, can be healing. Other approaches to healing include offering therapy, support groups, retreats, and giving victims input on improving child safety going forward. When possible, victims need compassionate care and a pastoral response.9

Zero Tolerance

Historically, religious organizations have handled offenders ineptly. While early efforts to rehabilitate offenders were consistent with current thought, other factors contributed. One was the Christian idea of forgiveness and reconciliation. Ministries today still struggle with whether a person repentant of sexual sin should be allowed to return to ministry, with varying answers. The decision is tough when removing a gifted person will destroy a successful ministry.

Yet the lesson of history is clear, at least with respect to child sexual abuse. Others have repeatedly tried the experiment of rehabilitating sex offenders, and the dangers of keeping an offender in ministry are too great. If an allegation of child sexual abuse is determined to be true, the person should be removed immediately and permanently from ministry—no matter how charismatic, vibrant, and successful that person is otherwise.

Conclusion

Stories like Larry Nassar’s abuse of hundreds of children over decades are hard to hear. #MeToo accounts—particularly those involving child sexual abuse—are heartbreaking. But they serve as a reminder to organizations that work with children. Taking steps to prioritize child protection is an investment that can have a lasting impact, both for the organization and the children it serves.

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1 John Jay College Research Team, The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010, p. 5, 16, May 2011, at http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/child-and-youth-protection/upload/The-Causes-and-Context-of-Sexual-Abuse-of-Minors-by-Catholic-Priests-in-the-United-States-1950-2010.pdf.
2 Causes and Contexts, p. 99.
3 A Ten Year Progress Report, June 2012, National Review Board, p. 8, at http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/child-and-youth-protection/upload/10-year-report-2012.pdf.
4 Jeffrey L. Seglin, “Too Much Ado About Giving References,” The New York Times, § 3 at 4 (February 21, 1999), at http://www.nytimes.com/1999/02/21/business/the-right-thing-too-much-ado-about-giving-references.html.
5 This approach will depend on the law in different jurisdictions, and some states protect by statute former employers acting in good faith.
6 Most of the privileges, such as the counselor-client privilege, do not shelter persons from reporting child abuse, though clergy confidentiality is absolute in many jurisdictions.
7 Freeh Sporkin & Sullivan, LLP, “Report of the Special Investigative Counsel Regarding the Actions of the Pennsylvania State University Related to the Child Sexual Abuse Committed by Gerald A. Sandusky,” July 12, 2012.
8 Tom Barth, “Crisis Management in the Catholic Church: Lessons for Public Administrators,” Public Administration Review, Sept./Oct. 2010, p. 785.
9 Ten Year Progress Report, p. 2. 
Featured Image: "Unnamed" by Rhendi Rukmana on Unsplash.
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