In 2014, a sex ring in Rotherham, England was exposed and found to have exploited 1400 girls, most of them white and many from broken homes and under care of the state. The ring was managed by a group of Pakistani men. For fifteen years, these men were able to run their sex ring and profit from it, in spite of the existence of the ring being well documented and known by the local authorities. The local authorities, the police and social workers, did nothing. Why? The general consensus is that, having been criticized for “institutionalized racism” in the months prior to when the existence of the sex ring became known, the police were unwilling to do anything that might give further grounds for critics to accuse them of racism. So, being well aware of a sex ring in their town that exploited hundreds of girls as sex slaves, they ignored it because the perpetrators were mostly men of color and the victims mostly white. When word finally spread among the general population of Rotherham, an investigation was conducted that did not mince words on the horrid details of the abuse and exploitation carried out and on the negligence of the authorities. Even still, no one in the police department was fired. Not one social worker lost their job.
Last month, the nation was riveted by testimony given by four Olympic gymnasts before Congress on the abuse they suffered by Larry Nassar, an athletics doctor at Michigan State University who was employed by USA Gymnastics to assess and care for gymnasts. But, Simone Biles, McKayla Maroney, Maggie Nichols and Aly Raisman were not testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee to provide evidence of Nassar’s abuse. Nassar has already been convicted and sentenced to 100 years in prison. The gymnasts told the senators about the fact that they reported their abuse to agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the FBI, in 2015 and 2016, and the FBI did nothing. One FBI agent who ignored the gymnasts accounts of abuse by Nassar and later lied about his own inaction has been fired. But, the decision has been made that no one will be prosecuted. Maroney argued, “What is the point of reporting abuse if our own FBI agents are going to take it upon themselves to bury that report in a drawer? They had legal, legitimate evidence of child abuse, and did nothing.” Instead of acting on the evidence of abuse, the FBI sat on Maroney’s testimony for 17 months and misrepresented, she claims, many of her statements. “They chose to lie about what I said and protect a serial child molester rather than protect not only me but countless others.” The inaction of the FBI, as well as the collaboration of USA Gymnastics and the US Olympics Committee to cover up the abuse, allowed Nassar to abuse hundreds more girls over the course of the years.
The epidemic of child sexual abuse in the entertainment industry has long been known. However, it has received little attention and little effort to stop it. In 2014, a film directed by Oscar-nominated director Amy Berg, An Open Secret, detailed the underbelly of child sexual abuse in Hollywood. This was the same year that Spotlight, which told the story of clerical abuse in the Archdiocese of Boston, won the Academy Aware for Best Movie. An Open Secret, however, received exactly zero offers from Hollywood to distribute the film. As I recall, it played for a couple of weeks in a handful of theatres, then disappeared. Few molesters suffer consequences for their crimes, and fewer still are blackballed from the industry even after their abuse becomes known or even after conviction in a court of law. Roman Polanski is still admired for his work as a director, and even won an Oscar after fleeing to Europe to avoid prosecution for drugging and raping a child actress. Whoopi Goldberg infamously argued for Polanski’s freedom on the talk show The View because, she said, what he did wasn’t “rape-rape.” Victor Salva continued to direct films even after being convicted of molesting a child actor and possessing child pornography. Kevin Spacey was ousted from the House of Cards Netflix series after allegations surfaced of his having abused underage boys, but he is making a comeback in an Italian film co-starring Vanessa Redgrave. The #MeToo movement of a few years ago championed the women who had suffered abuse at the hands of men in the movie industry, but it had nothing to say about the abuse of children. Asia Argento received rousing applause when she announced at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival that Harvey Weinstein would “never be welcome here again.” Argento herself would later admit to having sexual relations with actor Jimmy Bennett when Bennett was 17-years old, though she insisted she didn’t know he was a minor in spite of having known Bennett for several years.
In 2004, a study by the U. S. Department of Education was published documenting the extent of sexual abuse of students by employees of the public schools. The study, authored by Dr. Carol Shakeshaft of Hofstra University, claimed that 29,000 students are sexually harassed, sexually assaulted, or raped by employees of the public schools every year. In 2007, the Associated Press published a series on sexual abuse in the schools. Only five years after the explosive headlines about sexual abuse by priests of the Catholic Church was carried by virtually every newspaper in the country, fewer than a dozen papers elected to carry the AP series on abuse in the schools. Revelations were made about teachers’ abuse being covered up and rarely reported to the authorities, teachers being transferred or being allowed to move from one school to another with their record of abuse not being shared, and teachers being removed from the classroom to go to “work” sitting in rooms all day doing nothing because the schools could not risk their being near children, but could not fire them, either. Little compensation is available to victims, and so-called “windows” where states temporarily remove the statute of limitations on sexual abuse so that those abused years or even decades ago can sue for restitution usually don’t include public institutions, thus giving the schools a pass. In 2017, the AP published another series, this time on abuse suffered by students in the schools by other students. AP’s research showed that, for every report to the police of adult employees of the schools abusing children, there are seven such reports of students being abused by their peers. Still, little progress has been made on the extent of abuse in the public schools, and not one Attorney General has initiated a grand jury investigation of the schools in his or her state. Just this week, allegations were made that the Loudoun County School Board in Virginia attempted to cover up the rape of a ninth-grade girl by a “gender fluid” male student in a bathroom in order to advance the LGBTQ+ agenda in their schools.
Earlier this month, the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church (CIASE) published its report on the extent of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in France from 1950 to 2020. The report estimates that 216,000 children were abused by 2900 to 3200 priests, deacons, monks and nuns. When lay employees or volunteers of the Church are counted, the number of victims increases to an estimated 330,000. Jean-Marc Sauve, president of CIASE, said that, “Faced with this scourge, for a very long time the Catholic Church’s immediate reaction was to protect itself as an institution and it has shown complete, even cruel, indifference to those having suffered abuse.” Sauve went on, saying, “It was only from 2010 that the Church began to recognize victims when it started reporting cases to the judicial system, imposing canonical sanctions and accepted that dealing with aggressors should no longer be an internal affair.” CIASE made 45 recommendations for reform in the Church, including some revisions to Canon Law to more clearly define offenses and punishments. The report acknowledges that progress has been made by the Church in that more than half of the cases documented occurred prior to 1969 and that the number of cases were in decline until 1990. However, that decline has leveled off, and the problem remains. Do the math: half of 330,000 is 165,000. 165,000 divided by fifty years is 3,300. Even if the abuse has declined by half again over the last five decades, it remains a massive problem for the Church. French clergy groups requested that the government carry out the investigation, and the investigation and report were financed by the French bishops.
The above cases are not unique among institutions. I’ve not even mentioned the Boy Scouts, US Swimming, other organized sports or religious traditions. As well, it’s important to point out that the institution where far and away the greatest numbers of children are sexually abused is the family.
What all of these institutions have demonstrated when it comes to the sexual abuse of children is a greater desire to protect the institution than to protect the children. Somehow the justification is made that the reputation of the institution, whether that be the school, the Church or the family, is too important to be besmirched by the stain of child sexual abuse. So, better to keep it under wraps, to ignore it and, most horribly, to treat the victims as if they didn’t count and that the abuse they suffered was of little to no consequence. As such, those whose very job it was to protect children failed them. Those entrusted with the care of children abandoned them. Those whose life commitments called them to treat all as they would treat Christ Himself treated these children as if they were the ones who represented a threat to Christ and to the mission of His Church.
In the first half of the twentieth century a revolution took place in how Western culture regarded children. Prior to then, children were largely regarded as small adults, and there was no hesitation to put them to work on the farm or in the factory. School was a luxury for most. The concept of adolescence was virtually unheard of until the post-war era. There was little focus on the proper development of children, much less protecting them from the less positive vagaries of life. Read the fairy tales of the nineteenth century and compare them to the children’s books of the late twentieth century. Those fairy tales were chock full of the gory and grotesque details of suffering, abandonment, poverty and death. Not much about very hungry caterpillars, and a terrible horrible bad day could very well end up with someone becoming a giant’s dinner or mixed into a witch’s brew. Around the middle of the twentieth century, with the research of Erikson and the books of Spock, a sea change in our understanding of children and childhood took hold. Now, childhood was to be a precious time when children were to be guided by loving, trustful adults, protected from the onslaught of disturbing events and dangers that threaten in the adult world. It’s possible that one of the results of this sea change, this cultural revolution regarding children, is that the sexual abuse of children has declined significantly since before 1950. We’ll never know, because records and reports on such things weren’t kept well, if kept at all, and if we think there’s a stigma attached to the victims of abuse today, we can only imagine how penetrating that stigma was in the earlier decades of the last century.
The fact remains, however, that in virtually every institution of society and at every social level, the sexual abuse of children continues at appalling levels. The fact remains, too, that few institutions are willing to explore seriously the extent of such abuse among their members, which makes it difficult to be committed to serious reform. That 2004 study by the Department of Education on the extent of abuse in public schools? That study is seventeen years old, and no newer study has been commissioned.
As Catholics, we certainly must be attentive to the reality of abuse that continues to be a scourge within the Church. Yes, progress has been made, even considerable progress. Yet, every effort must be made to root out every ounce of abuse. No, this doesn’t mean abandoning due process and the concept of innocence until proven guilt. It does mean that abuse must not be tolerated, not by anyone, anywhere. It also means that not only the abusers, but those who cover for them must be held accountable. That means that people must be removed from their lofty positions when it is demonstrated that they act irresponsibly, either by committing abuse themselves or allowing or enabling abuse by seeking to protect the Church’s reputation rather than protect the children.
But, we are not only Catholics responsible for what goes on in the Church. We are taxpaying Americans whose taxes pay for our schools and our police departments. We are consumers who watch movies, and purchase music and art. We are parents who give our children to the care of others whom we trust because children don’t grow well in bubbles and because most people can be trusted. We are family members who may be tempted to keep family secrets at the expense of a child’s pain. Even as Catholics, our concern for children ought not be limited to what happens at the parish or the parochial school, in the youth group or the choir. Every child’s pain is in some way my responsibility. We are our brother’s keeper. We are especially keepers of our children’s innocence, trust, and safety.
The National Sexual Violence Resource Center has resources for parents and other adults for recognizing and acting to prevent or address sexual abuse. Certainly, one of the most important things parents can do is talk with their children about their rights and about not being afraid to speak up when they are made to feel uncomfortable in any place or by any one: family member, teacher, coach, priest, minister, police officer, doctor, fellow student or team member – anyone. We, as adults, cannot be afraid to speak up when we suspect abuse by anyone.
The Tennessee Hot Line for reporting abuse is: 1-877-237-0004
Everyone in Tennessee is a mandated reporter. What that means is that anyone who suspects or has reason to believe abuse is or has taken place, and certainly anyone who witnesses abuse, is obliged to report it to the police or the Department of Children’s Services. NOT to your supervisor at work. NOT to the child’s parents. NOT to your friend who’s a cop or social worker. NOT to your own child’s pediatrician. NOT to the teacher or school principal. NOT to the child’s coach. NOT to the pastor or bishop or rabbi. Anyone who suspects or witnesses abuse is obliged to report it to the police or the Department of Children’s Services. The best way to report is to call the Hot Line. That’s what it’s there for.
Jesus begged His disciples not to prevent the children coming to Him. “Let the little children come to me” (Mt 19:14). It is the responsibility of each of us to watch for the care of every child, at least when we have reason to be concerned that any child is in danger. Jesus wants the children to come to Him. How tragic for a child to lose faith in his or her Savior because those who are supposed to embody the love and trust of Christ fail them.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.