Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Child Sexual Abuse: It's Not Just a Catholic Issue

As Catholic cardinals from around the world gather to elect a new pope, they face the growing ire of an international community that has lost confidence in the moral integrity of the Church. New details are emerging every day about Catholic priests who have committed acts of child sexual abuse and a Church hierarchy that has for decades worked to protect them.

Amid all the names, the one that has attracted the most anger in the U.S. is Cardinal Roger Mahony, archbishop emeritus of Los Angeles. Last month, a court ordered the release of files relating to more than 120 priests accused of child sex abuse which showed that Mahony, along with other officials, had protected the clerics. He was publicly reprimanded by his successor and stripped of his public and administrative duties.

The Catholic Church is in crisis, no doubt. The next pope will be bogged down for years in ongoing worldwide investigations, civil litigation and criminal prosecutions of Church officials. He faces the even tougher job of regaining the diminishing trust of many Catholics who have left the Church out of frustration and disgust.

While the media has chosen to focus on the wrongdoings of the Catholic Church, the problem of child sexual abuse -- and its cover up -- is by no means unique to this one religion. Over the past year, we have seen evidence of several other organizations where moral integrity is a given (including the Boy Scouts of America, Penn State University and an Orthodox Jewish community in London) fall prey to widespread child sexual abuse. Like the Catholic Church, these institutions chose to protect themselves and their own image rather than the lives of innocent victims.

In 2012, internal documents from the Boy Scouts of America revealed more than 125 cases in which men suspected of molestation allegedly continued to abuse Boy Scouts, despite a blacklist meant to protect boys from sexual predators. Similar to the Catholic Church's lists of pedophile priests, the Boy Scouts of America kept a list of "perversion files," which listed the names of Scout leaders suspected of abuse. In at least 50 cases, the Scouts expelled suspected abusers, only to discover they had re-entered the organization and were accused of molesting again.

In 2011, a conspiracy of silence that protected longtime Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky was broken when Sandusky was accused of sexually assaulting at least eight underage boys. An investigation commissioned by the school board, and conducted by former FBI head Louis Freeh, found that university president Graham Spanier, head football coach Joe Paterno and athletic director Tim Curley had known about allegations of child abuse on Sandusky's part as early as 1998, and were complicit in failing to disclose them.

Just last month, British TV aired a documentary titled "Britain's Hidden Child Abuse," which showed a video of a senior rabbi in an Orthodox Jewish community north of London warning an alleged victim of child sex abuse not to go to the police. Rabbi Ephraim Padwa was secretly filmed telling the victim that going the police is an act of mesira -- a Jewish law forbidding reporting a Jew to a non-Jewish authority. The documentary uncovers 19 different alleged cases of child sex abuse across England- not one reported to the police.

A common theme in all of these cases is that the institutions involved chose to deal with the sexual abuse "in house" rather than going to law enforcement. The result? Lies, cover ups and an ongoing trail of abuse that continued far longer than it ever should have.

To regain trust and moral authority, these organizations need to handle child sexual abuse with transparency and honesty, instead of secrecy and deception. Secrecy is toxic, and in it, child abuse flourishes. They need to follow the mandatory child abuse reporting law, which requires adults working with children -- in the role of teacher, coach, clergy and more -- to report allegations of sexual abuse of minors to law enforcement. This includes abuse that is suspected, not confirmed.

Penn State instituted such a law in October, which holds universities and individuals financially and criminally liable for failure to report suspected abuse. Under the law, colleges and universities that "knowingly and willfully" fail to report known or suspected child abuse or prevent another person from doing so will be slapped with a $1 million fine for each failure.

Whoever the Catholic Church elects as its new pope, his first order of business should be to tackle the child sexual abuse problem head-on. First and foremost, he needs to revise Church law and Vatican protocols so that secrecy no longer surrounds child sex abuse. Secondly, he needs to follow the law of the land and require church officials to report clergy accused of sexual abuse of minors to law enforcement. And third, he needs to retain independent and outside professionals -- non-clerics -- who do not have a requirement of obedience to the pope and bishops, to conduct investigations into child sex crimes by clergy.

Then and only then will the Church and its leader regain the trust of its people and be able to move in a positive direction.

Samantha Parent Walravens is the author of 'TORN: True Stories of Kids, Career & the Conflict of Modern Motherhood,' chosen by the New York Times as the first pick for the Motherlode Book Club. Before becoming a writer, she worked as a crisis counselor at a rape crisis center where she did outreach and education on child sexual abuse.


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