It is better to be an outcast, a stranger in one’s own country, than an outcast from one’s self. It is better to see what is about to befall us and to resist than to retreat into the fantasies embraced by a nation of the blind.
Chris Hedges

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Protecting our Children

This letter is about the responsibility of adult leaders to “be alert and diligent and do all they can to protect children[1] against all forms of abuse within the institutions we lead.  It is also about our duty, once child abuse has been disclosed to us, to prioritise the interests of the child over those of their alleged abusers and our institutions.

By children I mean any boy or girl aged 16 years or younger, and by institutions I mean those places and things which either attract and/or compel children to be part of them.  But my focus is especially on our families, schools and churches.   
  1. First, because they’re supposed to be the bastions of child protection in our society.   
  2. Second, because I am an adult leader in each of these institutions. 
  3. Third, because my personal experience of child protection lies most strongly within these three institutions.  And finally, because these are where most of the reported abuse of children in my town[2] happens.

Family, school and church are hugely important to me, but if child abuse happens or is alleged to have happened within any one of them, “helping the victim is my first concern.”[3]  I think most adult leaders would publicly agree with me on that.  And yet my own experience and research reveals that the ways in which many adult leaders privately fail “to help those who have been abused and to protect those who may be vulnerable to future abuse[4] are so numerous that it would take several volumes to cover them all.  Therefore I’ve summarised them into eight representative examples alongside what I consider to be the simplest remedy for each.

The first failure identified is that of blaming the child.  In a number of cases, both here and overseas, children have been disciplined by church leaders for the ‘sin’ of being sexually active,[5] and criticised by family leaders for not having fought hard enough against the alleged abuser.[6]  That’s totally wrong.  Sex abuse certainly is a sin, but not by its victims, regardless of how hard they may or may not have fought against it.   Instead of blaming the child in such cases, we have a duty to reassure them that they’ve done nothing wrong.[7] 

The second failure is that of keeping “it all in-house.”[8]  In one local case  a child withdrew his allegations of abuse gainst his teacher because an adult family leader told him that he could “destroy[9] the man’s career if he took it further. As a result the abuser carried on for years before finally being properly investigated and confessing to the abuse of dozens of children.  In another overseas case an abuser[10] died at age 85 without once being brought to the notice of police. And yet complaints had been made about him as early as 1965, and he’d even been suspended two years before his death in 2010 over fresh complaints.   Keeping it ‘in-house’ is wrong on every level because the fact is that child abuse is a crime in every country.  So even in New Zealand where mandatory reporting[11] is not yet required by the law, if anyone brings an allegation of abuse to us, we are obligated to counsel and help them to report it to the police.[12]

The third failure is that of allowing other adults to pressure and gaslight[13] the abused child.  Allowing adults to  tell the child that their alleged abuser is suffering horribly in jail, that he is innocent until proven guilty, and pressuring children about the importance of forgiveness, is nothing more than a bullying tactic.   Presumption of innocence[14] is a core principle that alleged abusers are entitled to rely on.  But so too are children entitled to rely on their adult leaders for protection from such unconscionable emotional abuse.  We need to remind those who support the alleged abuser to let due process happen, and not use their private acts of charity as a public stick with which to beat already vulnerable children.

The fourth failure is that of not disclosing an offender’s history.  In another New Zealand case,[15]  an institution’s leaders sent an adult member to another part of the country without disclosing his history of sexually abusing young boys.  In his new location, they then allowed him to be with other children who he also abused.  The mother of one of those later victims reported having to watch those leaders show concern for the abuser’s welfare and yet apparently show none for the children they knowingly let him be with.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with supporting abusers, particularly when they are repentant and seeking to change.  But we should never do so ahead of or instead of supporting their victims.

The fifth failure is that of pushing children to “forgive” the alleged abuser, or even an abuser who has been found guilty.  So often these people have denied that they’ve done anything wrong in the first place.  In those circumstances and no matter how subtly we do it, when we tell a child they need to forgive, we only add to their confusion and vulnerability.  Forgiveness is an important part of a child’s healing process, but adult leaders must allow them to arrive at it in their own due time, not put a metaphorical stopwatch on them and pressure them to get there.

The sixth failure is that of not ensuring abused children get access to appropriate counselling.  I have seen a case where adult family and church leaders allowed a self-harming, suicidal teenager, who had been a child when the alleged abuse began, to be helped by other adults who also supported the alleged abuser.  Such a practice where the so-called helpers have a conflict of interest is downright unethical and dangerous.  Even though a child or teenage victim may not understand the risks, adult leaders should.  A suicidal, self-harming child needs independent and professional help from counsellors who “practice within the scope of their competence,”[16] and whose sole mandate is the child’s healing, nothing else.  We are obligated to give them access to help from such counsellors and protect them from the conflicted help of amateurs.

The seventh failure is that of not following child abuse policies.[17]  When allegations of abuse have been brought to their notice, too many adult leaders have left an alleged abuser in position to continue or start abusing children.  One of the tragic ironies of this particular failing is that, had they followed the policies, not only would children have been protected, it could also have helped the abusers.  All leaders are prey to our own subjectivity, and if we have had a close relationship with the alleged abuser there’s a risk that we’ll act subjectively.  Removing or minimising that risk is precisely why policies exist, so we must apply them.

The final failure is that of ignoring and marginalising whistleblowers.[18]   Here and overseas whistleblowers have been rebuked, punished and even expelled by adult leaders for exposing child abuse that’s happened within their institutions.  Whistleblowers are vulnerable to similar pressures and abuses as the victim, and we owe them the same protections. 

All of these examples represent real cases of failure on the part of adult leaders who are supposed to know and do better.  At heart, these failings almost always hinge on fear and pride which blind us to what’s right, deafen us to our own conscience, and shrink our integrity. 

In one recent case a reporter captured this state of blind, deaf, shrunkenness when he wrote, 
“Even as the heartbreaking details emerge, as pages of testimony are absorbed and parsed, and as a seamy picture of alleged child abuse and the subsequent failures to act come into clear, indefensible focus, the reflex of the … hierarchy is one of tone deafness … [Their] focus revolves not around the children who most needed the adults to be grown-ups but around protecting the power: the big, untouchable [institution] with the big name and the big reputation … Surrounded by so much bigness, virtually everyone in a position of authority [seems] to come up very small.”
Before concluding this letter I note that while I have referred to a number of cases from various institutions, and quoted from a number of documented sources on abuse cases within them, apart from my own family I make no claim to represent the official position of any specific institution on child abuse.  For that I leave the reader to check the footnote references, and then measure for themselves the performance of any institution referred to in this letter against their own stated official positions. 

Finally, as part of my research I’ve reviewed my own practice as an adult leader and recognised my own failure to speak up on this issue before now because I feared that people I know and care about might recognise themselves in the examples I’ve used.  That is a sorry excuse, and my silence stops today. 

If I claim that the protection of children is my priority, and I do, then I have to walk that talk, as does every other adult who makes the same claim.  And if we’re not going to do that, then in my opinion we deserve to be either released from leadership or stand convicted along with the abusers.

[1]The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 2010. ‘Handbook 2, Aministering the Church. Policies on Moral Issues, 21.4.2: Abuse and Cruelty.’ p 195.
[4] ibid
[9] Arthur, Robin – LLB (Hons) BA AAMINZ. (6 November 2012). ‘Report to the Commissioner of Pamapuria School on review of the employment and offenses of James Parker. page 19, bulletpoint 87.Ä€MAPURIA-SCHOOL-RE-JAMES-PARKER,
[13] Stern, Robin (1 May 2007). ‘The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life.’ Random House Digital. ISBN 978-0-7679-2445-0
[15] Sunday Star Times (8 August 2008). ‘Rites and wrongs - alleged abuse in the Mormon church.’