A #MeToo movement for children: Shining a light on child abuse

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Cecilia Tortajada

POLICY FORUM | October 15, 2018

The Catholic Church is far from the only organisation with a dark history of abusing kids within its care. Cecilia Tortajada writes that it’s time to hold the not-for-profit sector at large more accountable.

In August this year, a US Grand July revealed that 300 members of the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania had covered up the abuse of more than 1,000 children over a period of 70 years. The news is one more of the unfortunate events of this sort that have been reported during recent years by Catholic priests and other types of clergy in the US, Australia, Ireland, and Chile, among other places.

Laurie Goodstein, a national religion correspondent for the New York Timesreported in 2016 as part of her research that these abuses have been observed not only in the Catholic Church but also in other religious groups, including faiths that allow clergy to marry.

Regrettably, the abuse of minors, either physically or emotionally, is not just the crime of faith groups. It has also been reported by other seemingly trustworthy organisations, such as Oxfam. The House of Commons in the UK has documented abuses by the aid sector. Their Eighth Report of Session 2017-19 explains that this is not a new problem – most unfortunately, it has been happening for a long time.

In the case of government authorities, abuses have been documented in both developed and developing countries. A recent report produced by the American Civil Liberties Union and the International Human Rights Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School shows “the pervasive abuse and neglect of unaccompanied immigrant children detained by US Customs and Border Protection.”

Whether it’s faith groups, governments or non-governmental organisations, the core of the problem is a lack of accountability for those who abuse their power.

According to UNICEF, millions of children worldwide experience the worst kinds of rights violations.

In 2017, UNICEF reported that approximately 15 million adolescent girls aged between 15 and 19 experienced forced sex, with only one per cent looking for professional help. These terrible numbers may, in fact, underrepresent the situation as children may not talk about what are shocking experiences, mostly in the case of male children and adolescents.

Within the developed countries, the US is said to have one of the worst records, with an average of four to seven children suffering abuse and neglect every day.

In the case of the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania, the fact that 45 of the offenders were from the same dioceses is a clear indication of the poor governance, lack of accountability, and of enforcement of rule of law within the organisation. The same can be said of every organisation where abuses have been committed and have persisted over time. For the wider Catholic Church – one of the world’s most influential institutions over past centuries and an organisation with a history of appalling mistakes – the current situation is certainly a setback.

Since his Papal inauguration in 2013, Pope Francis has set the route for change. I met him in February 2017 during the International Seminar on the Human Right to Water, organised by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences at the Vatican.

An enlightened and charismatic leader, the Pope passionately emphasised the need for the human right to water and public policies that would make it a reality. The Pope’s interest in bringing progress to the Church is clear. Embarrassingly, this is not the case for all influential members of the Vatican.

Despite its failings, it should be acknowledged that the Church also provides much-needed support to the downtrodden, disadvantaged and vulnerable people in many parts of the world. This is also the case for the people who work for non-government organisations (NGOs) that have been known to have committed abuse.

In the developing world, thousands of members of charitable organisations work under similar precarious conditions to the people they help. They do so because they believe in the mission of the organisations for which they work, many of which have repeatedly failed them.

While not all members are offenders, as long as organisations fail to set zero-tolerance policies for offensive behaviours, perpetrators will inevitably be promoted.

Better governance, clear codes of conduct, transparency, zero-tolerance policies for any type of harassment, and implementation guidelines are all essential to put an end to the abuse, not only in the Catholic Church but in every faith group, charitable organisation and NGO.

Charitable institutions and NGOs of all types are only as good as their leaders and their members. They cannot expect to attract the best people if they do not address the critical problems of abuse. The objective of the not-for-profit sector should be to serve a greater social good, not to protect a few hundred abusers – irrespective of their place in the hierarchy.

NGOs have gained prominent positions in global negotiations, especially in advocacy activities for human rights, peace, and the environment. They have also played leading roles in delivering disaster relief, humanitarian aid, and development assistance. They are known for questioning the effectiveness, accountability, and legitimacy of governments and the private sector alike.

Nevertheless, the tales of abuse coming out of the Catholic Church and the aid sector show that the scrutiny must also go the other direction.

The #MeToo Movement exposed the extent to which women around the world suffer sexual harassment – often at the hands of authority figures in influential organisations. Perhaps it’s time for a #MeToo Movement for children as well.

Cecilia Tortajada is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Water Policy, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.

This article was first published by POLICY FORUM, October 15, 2018.