The unpalatable reality for many communities all over the U.S. is that the institutional sexual abuse of children is a real and prevalent problem.
What makes this worse is that the perpetrators are often people we know: community leaders, religious leaders, school employees, sports coaches and other leaders commanding trust and respect.
In cases of child sexual abuse, the perpetrator often has a position of power or authority over the victim. A child cannot consent to any form of sexual activity, so any sexual behavior with a person under the age of consent is considered sexual abuse.
The abuse becomes “institutional” when the organizational structure that the abuser is affiliated with does not respond appropriately to allegations of abuse from victims.
The Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts of America are two high-profile organizations that have been in the spotlight with this problem, but there are many more that have attracted less media attention.
No institution that interacts with children can afford to ignore the problem or pretend that it doesn’t exist under their roofs.
The following types of organizations are all at risk of the institutional sexual abuse of children:
- Schools – sexual predators posing as teachers and sports coaches have ready access to children and if no one is trained to pick up on the warning signs of sexual abuse, they can “hide in plain sight”.
- Religious organizations – predators can hide behind the trust and esteem that clergymen, rabbis or other religious leaders command in the knowledge that the organization itself may cover up their actions.
- Youth groups – the Boy Scouts is only one type of youth group at risk. Parents entrust their children to many other youth organizations around the country, unwittingly exposing them to potential abuse.
- Hospitals – medical environments put children in vulnerable positions and often provide ready-made excuses for predators to cover their actions.
We have all been made aware in recent years of the devastating physical and emotional toll that abuse takes on its victims, many of whom carry the pain and trauma into adult life.
Institutions often fail to protect children from abuse
Child sex offenders are predators and skilled at hiding what they do. They often act alone but place themselves in situations and settings where they have easy access to children.
Often, they seek organizations that they know have a reputation to maintain. They know that the institution will protect this at all costs, even if it means covering up sexual abuse.
One of the most shocking realities to emerge from recent investigations into institutional sexual abuse is that organizations have often placed their reputation before the care of children.
So, rather than investigate and expose sexual abuse, these organizations either ignore allegations or try to cover the abuse up to protect their own name.
Often, so-called “passing the trash” takes place where known abusers in large national or international organizations are sent to another state or even across the world to continue their abuse.
Organizations that most parents trust to protect their children are, in fact, often only protecting themselves from scandal and shame.
The knock-on effect of this? The abuse continues and more abusers know that they can escape justice for their actions. The institution itself perpetrates the abuse and exploitation. This can be hard for the families of victims to comprehend.
It is not surprising that we have seen a backlash against some of the institutions implicated in covering up child sexual abuse in recent times.
Who are the child abusers?
It often surprises people that many child sex offenders hide in plain sight in the community. They are not the type of people we would normally associate with any type of criminal behavior, much less the abuse of children.
This is part of the problem that helps abusers to get away with their crimes. They often don’t look and act like abusers.
In the vast majority of cases, child abusers are not strangers lurking in the shadows and pouncing. They have a relationship – often a close one – with the victim, as we have seen with sports coaches, boarding school employees, religious leaders, and so on.
The Child Rescue Network claims that as many as 93 percent of victims under the age of 18 know their abuser. This is supported by most other research.
It helps to explain several aspects of child sexual abuse:
- Why abuse victims may be reluctant to come forward (fear, guilt, shame)
- Why institutions may fail to take the allegations seriously (though it doesn’t excuse this)
- Why parents and colleagues don’t notice the warning signs of abuse
Often, the abuser in institutional sexual abuse cases is known, liked, and trusted by the wider community. The thought of sexual abuse does not enter anybody’s minds until events start to “not add up”. By that time, the abuse may have occurred for some time.
Many children do not report what happened to them until many years later, meaning that it can be difficult to gather relevant evidence and bring the abuser to justice. This would send warning signs to other potential abusers that their actions will not be tolerated but, instead, the abuse is allowed to continue without fear of penalty.
The need to educate, observe and hold people in positions of authority to account
Because abusers are often in positions of authority over our children, parents, coworkers, and others who interact with them must be more observant of activities involving children.
Failure to question suspicious behavior because of authority positions is part of the problem. It can mean that the early stages of child sexual abuse may be overlooked.
Besides this, the institutions that harbor abusers must introduce procedures and policies that make it more difficult for the abuse to occur – and for perpetrators to get away with it if it does.
There is a powerful need to educate and train people about the problem so that the necessary changes can be made at all levels and the warning signs of abuse identified and acted upon.
Getting away with it for too long
The problem of institutional sexual abuse is a lot more widespread than we imagine.
According to reports in 2004, around 4.3 percent of active American Catholic clergy were implicated in acts of child sex abuse – over one in 25 clergymen.
What made this case worse was the failure of the Church to report allegations to law enforcement and hold the priests to account for their actions. Instead, they often actively concealed the truth and simply “passed the trash” elsewhere.
Because of the statute of limitations in such cases, criminal prosecutions often failed to materialize even when the criminal actions of the abusers were exposed.
Few people would disagree that child sexual abusers have been getting away with their actions for too long. Abusers have historically failed to pay the full price for their actions.
One estimate from the Mothers of Sexually Abuse Children suggests that criminal action is taken only in around 24 percent of substantiated cases of sexual abuse. Offenders are convicted only in a fraction of these cases and often spend less than one year in jail.
While civil lawsuits have helped to ensure that the victims and their families have not suffered financially as a result of past abuse, the perpetrators have escaped with their freedoms intact.
Support for victims of institutional child sexual abuse
If you are the victim of institutional child sexual abuse, you have many avenues for support. Hope remains that you can receive some measure of justice for the abuse.
The laws are changing, and victim rights are expanding, making it easier to come forward and hold child sex offenders to account.
Start with a free and confidential consultation with one of our experienced child sexual abuse attorneys at Andreozzi + Foote.
We are used to working with victims of institutional abuse. Rest assured that we treat all information with the strictest confidentiality.