The headlines on child sex abuse have been dominated for years by issues from the Catholic Church, culminating with last year’s Oscar-winning movie, Spotlight. There have been other scandals, of course, like Penn State, the New England boarding schools, and the polygamist sects, among many, but the Catholic cases and issues have continually rolled into the headlines. The latest is that the Manhattan Archdiocese in New York is partially covering the cost of sex abuse claims there by getting a mortgage of $100 million on hotel property that it owns.
I am the last person to say that the bishops deserve a pass on sex abuse, and so I won’t, but let’s look at some facts about children in the United States that call for a readjustment of focus. There are approximately 13-14 million Catholic children in the United States. That is a lot, but it pales in comparison to the number of children who are involved in amateur sports, which is approximately 60 million.
Those children are at greater risk than is acceptable, because coaches are rarely mandated child sex abuse reporters, the sports organizations have been very slow to adopt adequate protection policies, and there is a culture in sports that teaches kids to be tough without complaining—not to mention the persisting short statutes of limitations in many states. When all of this is added together the end result is captured in the debacle of USA Gymnastics as reported here and here.
There are several pathways to safety, and they all need to be taken. First, the umbrella organization for all amateur sports in the United States, the United States Olympic Committee, needs to get its act together. While child sex abuse has been in the headlines for 15 years, the USOC has moved at a glacial pace despite the number of children involved. Its actions have more often protected problematic coaches than children. Astonishingly, a rolling series of scandals in multiple sports since the 1980s has not yet produced the culture of safety that children need and deserve. Heroes like Olympic Gold medalist swimmer Nancy Hogshead Makar have been working for years to make the USOC more accountable. We may be on the brink of a better system but there is still significant work to be done.
Second, the states need to add coaches at every level (from peewee soccer to the universities) as mandated reporters. Most states do not include them in the list of mandated reporters, even though they spend more time with children and therefore have more opportunity to learn whether a child is being abused than, say, the child’s doctor. And if the states don’t act, Congress needs to.
Third, there needs to be training in every sport for every kid, parent, coach, and official on three issues: the signs of child sex abuse, encouragement of children to disclose if there is something that makes them feel uncomfortable, and the ways to contact the authorities in a particular state.
Finally, and as is true for every context of sex abuse, many states need to amend their statutes of limitations to make justice possible. Many coaches work for decades with children, and many who have sexually abused their team members are operating under the radar because the SOLs were simply too short. As they abuse more children, their victims continue to suffer in silence.