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The Global Child Sex Abuse Scandals in Institutions Continue, With Australia Now Joining the Countries That Are Investigating: What Congress and the President Should Do Here in the U.S.

Australia’s Prime Minister has ordered a national, wide-ranging investigation of child sex abuse and its cover-ups in institutions there, including the Catholic Church, orphanages, and state-run institutions.  The Australian investigation comes in response to the increasing numbers of victims coming forward there.

Earlier, the Irish government also investigated reports of child sex abuse.  In response to the emerging evidence of Irish Catholic priests’ abusing hundreds of Irish children, and Ireland’s Catholic Church protecting its reputation first, the government ordered investigations into evidence of abuse in certain geographic regions.  The resulting reports (here, here, here, and here) were scathing, and government officials minced no words when taking the Catholic hierarchy to account.

America’s Woefully Deficient Response to Proof of Child Sex Abuse in Our Institutions

Meanwhile, here, Americans have been shocked to learn in the last decade about the cover-up of child sex abuse in one institution after another: the Roman Catholic Church, Penn State University, the tony Horace Mann School, Orthodox Jewish organizations, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Boy Scouts, to name just a few.  As I have repeatedly explained in my scholarly work, as well as in columns here on Justia’s Verdict, the pattern is always the same: Men in power learn about one of their employees or volunteers abusing children within the organization.  But they fail to go to the authorities, and instead try to take care of the problem on their own, so as to protect the institution’s reputation. And tragically, and avoidably, the pedophiles in their midst continue to enjoy the secrecy they need to obtain one child victim after another.

What has the United States’ federal government’s response to these heinous crimes against our most vulnerable victims been?  A BIG FAT NOTHING.

Some, but not many, local or state prosecutors have laudably dug deep to get to the bottom of the child sex abuse in their jurisdictions.  One good example is the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office’s investigation of the Philadelphia Archdiocese (see also this report).  Another good example was the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s investigation into Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky.

Some states, but not enough, also have stepped up, in the face of these alarming stories, to amend their various laws to better protect children.  But the response has been scattershot, and there has not been any concerted effort by any national law enforcement organization—such as the State Governors or Attorneys General—or by the federal government to investigate the problem in the way that Australia is doing, and that Ireland has done.

Usually, Members of Congress leap at an opportunity to be our crusaders for goodness, and hold hearings on serious problems that we face (whether or not legal reform will ever result).  It’s good press, and they do like that.  On the pressing issue of institution-based child abuse, though, our Congressmen and Congresswomen have been the proverbial three monkeys who see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil.

This is odd, isn’t it?  Our elected representatives boldly and loudly beat their chests on related issues like sex trafficking and child pornography.  So why have they disappeared on this issue?  Surely, the answer lies in cowardice: they are afraid to criticize some of our most beloved institutions.  It’s easy enough for our politicians to bang their fists on their desks and condemn faceless sex traffickers and pornographers.  It is a lot harder when the institution that deserves condemnation and its leaders are known—often well-known—to the politicians.

When the headlines were just about the Catholic hierarchy’s sorry history of endangering children, our legislators feared insulting Catholics, or their friends the bishops.  Then there was Penn State, and our legislators feared insulting the thousands of fans of Penn State, the holy grail of college football, and their friends at the top of the University.  Now, child-sex-abuse allegations have come to the Boy Scouts, of all groups.

You can just see the members of Congress quaking at the thought of holding a hearing where they might have to criticize, horror of horrors, a bishop, a football coach, or a Boy Scout leader.  You can almost watch the gears turning in their heads: “Every Catholic, Penn State fan, and former Boy Scout will no longer contribute to my campaign.”  Oh, dear.

But this is just an explanation for the legislators’ cowardice, not an excuse for it.  Besides the incalculable toll that child sex abuse takes in terms of human suffering, there are monetary costs as well.  Child sex abuse is costing Americans billions in the harm done to the children, the therapy needed through their adults lives, the underproductivity of these future workers, and the drug and alcohol abuse that often follows abuse.  The cover-up is also costing billions for institutions that had let the abuse go on, for they rightly must, under the law, pay damages to the children and families that they permitted to be destroyed by their employees.

We need concerted efforts by the best and the brightest in this country to stop our institutions from ever doing this again.  We must create legal deterrents that work, and we must re-craft the legal system so that the victims are protected, the predators are identified, and the institutions are working with the authorities, not working (if they are working at all) on their problems in secrecy.

Now that the election is over, it is time for Congress and the President to take up this critical issue.  But I am not naïve.  I understand that it needs to be in the members’ political interest to do so.  Fortunately, it is.

The Republicans Would Benefit by Focusing on America’s Living, Breathing Children, Rather Than Their Proven-To-Be- Unsuccessful Focus on the “Unborn”

The Republicans were just trounced in the battleground states when they lost the women’s vote, as well as that of minorities.  A primary cause of their loss was obvious to all but the most myopic: They paid a steep cost for their extreme positions on reproductive rights.  The obsession with the “unborn” in the Party has become a distraction from its traditional strength on issues involving the economy.  This was the first presidential election that I can remember when the Party ventured beyond abortion to actually protest contraception as well.  That is a losing proposition, to state the obvious.

The Republicans would do well to find some social issues that do not involve unborn children, and instead involve real, live children, who are being harmed right now here on Earth.  Here’s the issue: institution-based child sex abuse!  Let’s hold hearings, let’s study it, and let’s institute a national strategy that will stop the institutions in our own country from needlessly endangering children, and that will put us on a better path, toward justice and sunlight.  That is about as righteous a cause as there is.  And it gives Republicans a fresh good cause.

It also gives Republicans a chance to prove to the public that they are not in the pocket of religious leaders regardless of the public good.

Here Is Why the Democrats Also Need to Act Now on the Crucial Issue of Child Sex Abuse

The Democrats have become the party for America’s minorities.  Unfortunately, those of us who work in this field can tell you that we have not yet begun to plumb to the depth of the institution-based child sex abuse in minority communities.  It is hard for any survivor to come forward, but Latino and black survivors have, in my experience and observation, been far more reluctant than others.  They need the kind of investigation that would shed light on their suffering, and push against their communities’ attitudes toward abuse especially when it involves boys, which too often make it more difficult for survivors to get help.

Both parties need to consider the female demographic, and this is an issue that speaks to mothers particularly.  President Obama obtained a majority of the women’s vote, but plenty of women voted for the Republicans.  Here is a hint: Mothers care deeply about stopping child abuse.  It is instinctual.  If you lay the groundwork to stop child sex abuse, then you will appeal to many, to women especially, and to mothers likely most of all.  If neither side of the aisle takes up this vital issue, then each is forsaking an amazing opportunity not only to do justice, but also to do something that is meaningful to their constituents at the same time.

Why the President Needs to Act Now

President Obama is now in the ideal situation to do good and to do justice, regardless of political calculations: He never again has to worry about being re-elected. That’s why a cause such as abolishing—and, when necessary, punishing—child sex abuse should be one that the President ought to take up, and as soon as possible. This is the right thing to do, and the President now has a riskless chance to do what is right.

The Business Angle for Washington to Consider

There is a business angle to this issue as well.  Congress would do well to investigate the machinations of the insurance industry on these issues.  The industry has been insuring institutions for liability for child sex abuse for decades, and until recently did not have to pay out much, because of our socially contrived secrecy.  Now the industry is lobbying against legislative reform to protect children, including statutes of limitations.  This is an industry that can force institutions to adopt safe-environment policies, to turn in perpetrators, and to take every conceivable measure to stop abuse.  They should be our partners in child protection, and Congress should expose their child-endangering policies and turn their attention to the need to protect children.  As they do so, they can reduce their liability and increase transparency and accountability.

Congress has been instrumental in raising the drinking age and requiring seat belts, working with the insurance industry.  The federal government needs to take an even more aggressive stance on the protection of our children from reckless institutions.  Both parties and the President need to look the insurance lobbyists in the eye and get them on the right track for our kids.

Just Do It

Australia and Ireland have the fortitude to learn the truth about child sex abuse in hallowed institutions.  Let’s hope that Congress and the President can find that fortitude and lead the national fight to crack down on child sex abuse nationwide.

Marci A. HamiltonMarci A. Hamilton is the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University, and the author of God vs. the Gavel: The Perils of Extreme Religious Liberty and Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children. She also runs two active websites covering her areas of expertise, the Religious Freedom Restoration Acts, www.RFRAperils.com, and statutes of limitations for child sex abuse, www.sol-reform.com. Professor Hamilton blogs at Hamilton and Griffin on Rights. Her email address is hamilton02@aol.com.
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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Shawn-Cullen/100002151491519 Shawn Cullen

    I see this article as clearly corrupt. It is to act as if the evidence that may be put together into focus does not reveal some thing much greater. The evidence proves that attractions to youth is inherent and common among politicians and people in all positions of authority. The term investigation is now seen as a tool and instrument of propaganda to form a scapegoat pool. This article is not real truth and appears delusional.

  • Lynne Newington

    If any thing or anyone is an instrument of propaganda to form a scapegoat pool, it’s the bishops and leaders of religious institutes, by depriving clergy their redemption by not pleading guilty to the crimes they have committed, using the vow of obedience as a tool to protect the institutional church.

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