If you have not been living under a rock, you are aware that an explosive grand jury report on six dioceses in Pennsylvania drove home the point that the bishops have not cleaned up the clergy sex abuse mess. Far from it, the powerful covering up the abuse are getting promoted and the perpetrators are still either in ministry or untethered. For those who trusted the bishops following the Spotlight report and the 2005 Philadelphia Archdiocese grand jury report, this new report was a kick in the gut.
What we are witnessing is the incapacity of a 2,000-year-old organization to change course in anyone’s lifetime, or perhaps ever. Believers are trying to figure out what can be saved when there are reports like this one with over 1,000 victims and over 300 abusing priests in a single state. No longer is it credible for the hierarchy to argue that they can do what is right by the children. They are too busy fighting each other for power and privilege, as I discussed here. Sad to say but children may never be their priority. That is leading many Catholics to wonder whether the Church can be saved at all, or, less radically, whether it can be saved with the top-down male hierarchy at its apex.
One of the aspects of the rolling child sex abuse scandals that have surprised me (and honestly I thought I was incapable of surprise long ago), is the inability of organizations that are not the Church to see their own reflection in its struggles. To be sure the Baptists and Jews are not Catholic, but they have the identical problem of choosing to cover up child sex abuse rather than publicly humiliating their clergy and undermining their power and prestige with such disclosures. But religious institutions are the least of it.
How was it possible that Penn State did not see itself in the Catholic scandals? Certainly the headmasters of the elite boarding schools felt a shiver of recognition when they read the headlines and certainly by the time they watched Spotlight. They have all been doing the same thing: instinctively protecting adult power, prestige, and standing while trivializing the harm to children. The cover-up has cast these institutions in the worst possible light. There is no public relations maneuver in the world adequate to fully repair a brand that has been painted with the sacrifice of young children to adult men intent on abusing them. Yet, they have almost uniformly failed to see the parallels or adequately prepare for the fallout when their victims start to emerge from the darkness of what happened to them.
That brings me to the United States Olympic Committee and USA Gymnastics. When the organization is private, it’s on the board of directors and the constituents of the organization to change its trajectory (along with the force of the law). These organizations, though, are part of our Olympic system and constituted in the first place by Congress. The USOC is funded by Congress as well as donations, and Congress has the capacity to dissolve it and reconstitute it.
This past year, Congress did pass S.B. 534: the Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sport Authorization Act. It was a step in the right direction that created a duty for coaches to report suspected child abuse and forbade coaches from being alone with child athletes, among other forward developments. It also authorized financial support for so-called SafeSport, which is constituted to handle sex abuse and assault cases from the National Governing Body for each sport. It is not a success, in large part because it takes these cases away from the courts and forces them through an opaque and unaccountable arbitration system. All that we know about Catholic sex abuse has been uncovered almost exclusively through discovery and public disclosure of the secret archives through civil litigation. Not so with SafeSport, which has many wondering which coaches have been reported, and what the status is for any given coach.
Leaving the inadequacies of SafeSport aside, though, which Olympic three-time gold medalist swimmer Nancy Hogshead Makar and I analyzed here, there is reason to radically critique the USOC and USAG at this time. Neither appears to be doing any better than the bishops in the recent Pennsylvania grand jury report, and what that means is that children are at serious risk. Both were disastrously inept in their dealings with Dr. Larry Nassar and his hundreds of victims.
The USOC has been roundly criticized for putting children’s interests second to medals and money. There is no one on the Committee who has the expertise or apparent capacity to put the athletes’ needs first. It was stunning when their new CEO, Sarah Hirshland, rebuffed Olympic star gymnast and advocate extraordinaire Aly Raisman, after hearings in Congress this summer. Although one might have expected this kind of callous response to the victims from someone whose experience was in golf, for godssakes, it’s still stunning that USOC leadership isn’t rolling out the red carpet to support and assist the survivors of their own mistakes.
The USAG has been facing a tsunami of criticism for its heartless and frankly stupid handling of the abuse of hundreds of gymnasts. What do they do? They go out and hire someone with no expertise in the area and it takes them months to figure out, well, she’s a disaster. They finally fired her, but it honestly doesn’t seem like they are any savvier now about what to do next than they were before.
Now, when it comes to the Church, the First Amendment prevents the government from ordering its dissolution. It can certainly force the hierarchy and organization to obey the law, and obviously should, but its organizational structure is its right to determine (up to the point they harm someone). The Supreme Court has also given churches carte blanche to choose anyone they want as clergy per the Hosanna Tabor decision. That is not a call that the government can make, though, again, they can be forced to abide by the law.
In the case of the USOC and USAG, however, Congress has the power to dissolve and reconstitute. It also has the power to force them to include on their boards people who will be intelligent and responsive to child sex abuse victims. The First Amendment is no barrier. So may I ask, what is taking them so long? If there were ever a need for a fresh start, now is the time as hundreds of Nassar’s victims start the long road to healing.
If the USOC and USAG are permitted to continue to operate as though they have been reading the bishops’ playbook, there will be more abuse and many more scandals rolling into the public square. It’s time to put children ahead of medals and money.