Monday, November 3, 2014

Aletha Blayse: Child Abuse, War, and the Need for a National Commission of Inquiry into Child Abuse

We Are Losing the War

On the eve of the November 4 election, America is at war. I’m not talking about the war in the Middle East. I’m talking about a different war. On the one side of the battle lines are those who abuse children or allow children to be abused. On the other are those who have declared war on these monsters in a fight for a world in which children are safe from all forms of predation. If ever the doctrine of jus bellum iustum applied, it is here and now. Because the statistics are horrifying. This year, the US Department of Justice cited figures from the Centers for Disease Control that approximately 1 in 6 boys and 1 in 4 girls are sexually abused before the age of 18. Rates of other forms of abuse are also high. This is the here and the now. This is not historical. And it is totally and utterly unacceptable. 

We do not live in a child safe society. Predators and those who protect them are winning the war. As dismal as may be is to say this, it’s true, and we have to face it. Here, I hasten to add that in stating this, I am not denigrating or minimizing the extraordinary efforts of survivor groups, individual survivors who speak out about their experiences (even when it means exposing truly frightening individuals – see this blog for the voice of a very brave Australian survivor), outspoken supporters, advocates, and hard-working frontline staff of various governmental and non-governmental organizations who combat child abuse on a daily basis. The importance of their efforts cannot be understated, and I do not do so. However, as I note, we cannot get away from the fact that we are failing children, and failing them miserably. We may be winning several battles, but that doesn’t mean we’re not losing the war.  

So what is going on? Why, despite the valiant efforts of all these fine and dedicated people, are we failing on a massive scale? In trying to find the answer to the question myself, I found the best way forward is to think of society as a huge, woven piece of fabric. This fabric is made up of laws, individuals, societal attitudes and norms, and institutions. Child abuse continues to occur because there are ‘holes’ in the fabric. We can continue to round up and put away child abusers as they come to light, as we are doing reasonably well at present, but until we find all the critical failure points, the rents in the fabric of our society that allow abuse to flourish, we will never move forward, forever stuck with the present horrifying rates of abuse. Only by examining every thread of society can we find where the holes are and fix them. 

The only way to do all of this properly is to have a national commission inquiry of inquiry. An inquiry that is amply resourced, with no time limit on its operation, and with almost limitless powers to compel individuals and organizations to present with information that will help get to the bottom of the problem of endemic child abuse and identify what is needed to stop it once and for all. People such as Bill Lindsey and Jerry Slevin have advocated strongly for this solution, and I write this article to lend support to their voices. It might seem odd and somewhat audacious for me to do so, as an Australian. I do so because, however trite it is to point this out, we live in a globalized world. Child abusers can and do move freely across the globe in search of prey. Technology gives Internet abusers access to children anywhere in the world. Children themselves may be trafficked across national borders. Australia is currently trying to reverse its own child abuse problem through the work of the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Other countries have mounted their own inquiries or are about to. The world needs America, and indeed other countries, to join in this war too, until there is nowhere in the world that people who are inclined to abuse children can commit their crimes, and all children, wherever they live, are safe from predation.   

In America, since 2012, Jerry Slevin, and those who’ve heard and repeated his clarion call for a national commission of inquiry, have been urging President Obama to take decisive action to protect children. While Slevin’s cogent arguments for a national commission of inquiry are sure to have gained the attention of President Obama, Obama is still to take the necessary action. It is not at all unfair to put the onus for establishment of the inquiry solely on Obama’s shoulders. The initiative will not come from the Democrats or the Republicans. Without Obama taking swift, unilateral, and decisive action to institute the inquiry, it won’t happen. Obama has the power to act, using a presidential executive order if necessary. Executive orders have traditionally been used in times of emergency and war. I cannot think of a greater emergency than a situation in which 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be sexually abused in their childhoods. And, as I said at the beginning, this is a war; bold action is more than warranted. 

Overcoming Resistance

Before turning to a consideration of some aspects of the national commission of inquiry that I believe need to be discussed, I’d like to talk about those who will come out in force against Obama if he were to announce a national commission of inquiry. I think the best mechanism to create the commission of inquiry is via a presidential executive order, as I’ve said. Even if it were necessary to pass appropriations bills to provide the commission of inquiry with sufficient resources so it was not a toothless tiger, however, I, like Jerry Slevin, believe it would be highly unlikely that either Congress or the Senate would block such bills, even if, as looks likely, the Republicans end up controlling both houses. As noted in a recent article in The Economist, the Republicans still need to be looking towards 2016, and, as the writer quite rightly points out, “unless they show they have a positive agenda, they risk a drubbing in 2016.” I can’t think of a more positive agenda than making America child safe. 

If, however, I’m wrong, and Obama does face obstacles to ensuring that the national commission of inquiry can do its job properly, he needs to be ready to rebut anyone who tries to argue against the need for such an inquiry. Naturally, there are many, many people and organizations that stand to lose, and lose badly, if such an inquiry is established. They will argue forcefully against it to protect their wealth, their reputations, and, in many cases, their or their members’ liberty. What follows are some of the arguments that are likely to be raised, and how they can be rebutted.

Economic arguments may well be at the forefront. In an era in which governments are implementing austerity measures, struggling with mounting budget deficits, and finding it difficult to maintain basic service provision, it can be expected that there will be arguments against the idea of spending the resources required to mount the type of inquiry required to create radical change. Ugly as it may be that some people need to see the financial benefits in addressing child abuse, they have to be answered. Here, it’s helpful to relate research published in the journal Child Abuse and Neglect in 2012, which estimated that the annual cost of child abuse and neglect in the United States for 2008 is $124 billion. Expenditure of anything up to $124 billion per annum that would ensure the tide of child abuse was stemmed is warranted.

Obama should also, of course, expect cries of “religious persecution.” While the national commission of inquiry should not confine itself to examination of religious institutions, and should also examine other institutions and abuse occurring in a non-institutional settings, it should be expected that those religious institutions that are likely to receive a drubbing will scream religious persecution at the establishment of a national commission of inquiry. While most attention has been paid to the Catholic Church’s role in protection of child sexual abusers in America, it is not the only religious institution in which there have been serious allegations of widespread cover-ups of child abuse. Despite this, it should be expected that there will be those who will argue that the inquiry is a thinly veiled attack on the Catholic Church or other religious organizations. The easiest way to rebut this, of course, is to point to the other institutions that will be being investigated. A clear statement that all institutions or organizations – religious and secular – publicly known and hidden/underground – will be examined, should be made forcefully. 

The “it won’t change a thing” argument will probably also loom large. Some will argue that a national enquiry will simply tell us that child abuse is endemic – but do nothing to change the situation, and that it will just be an extremely expensive fact-finding exercise that will chew up resources, provide cushy jobs and contracts for public officials and specialist advisors, and achieve nothing. This too is a furphy. Through the process of examining instances of child abuse and institutional responses to them, staff of the enquiry and society at large will develop a much richer understanding of the ways in which predators gain access to children, how children are manipulated or coerced into silence, how perpetrators are able, so often, to have repeated access to children, and other factors that allow child abuse to continue. 

The point should be made here that the inquiry that should be established is one that avoids talking only to the ‘experts’ and one that will place equal, if not greater, weight on the voices of survivors to truly understand what is going on. I cannot stress enough that survivors have the answers. If they are listened to, real solutions will be found. Faced with a problem of such extraordinary magnitude, it is all too easy for people who’ve never experienced abuse to throw up their hands in horror and state that the problem is insurmountable. I cannot count the number of times I’ve spoken to people about the problem and being provided with the response that there is nothing we can do to stop child abuse – that it has always been present and always will be – it’s such a huge problem, after all! This is wrong, wrong, wrong! If we want real answers and real solutions, all that is needed is for a national commission of inquiry to listen, and listen closely, to the stories and insights of the tens of thousands of survivors who have, collectively, the solutions to the problem. Many people who have been abused as a child can point clearly and directly not only at their abuser(s), but also at the institutions and/or the individuals who should have intervened to stop the abuse from occurring or continuing, but did not or could not. One only needs to listen to survivors to find the answers as to what we need to do to make our society completely child safe, rather than continuing to tinker at the edges, which, frankly, is all we’re doing. 

The “we already know” argument will also be raised. I’ve always thought Donald Rumsfeld was unfairly pilloried for his statement that, “there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.” He was making a serious and valid point, and it relates directly to another argument in favor of a national commission of inquiry. The “unknown unknowns” are what should convince anyone of the need for this inquiry. Sure, we know, for example, that the Catholic Church has an appalling history of shielding of child abusers, and most people may, at least initially, perceive that this inquiry is really about identifying problems in the Catholic Church and doing something about them. In which case, they may say what’s the point – we already know the Catholic Church has problems – why do we need such a broad-ranging inquiry? 

The answer is that there are plenty of organizations with nearly pristine outward indications of being child safe that may well be anything but. Here, I point squarely at the Salvation Army as a prime example of an “unknown unknown,” at least outside of Australia and New Zealand, where it is now becoming quite the “known unknown” (for a collection of articles on the Salvation Army’s record on child abuse, see this link). 

It may well be that the Salvation Army in the United States is only responsible for a very limited number of child abuse cases, as indicated by the relatively few media reports of abuse by Salvation Army officers and workers. Another possibility, however, is that the rates are, in fact, high, but that the institution has been far more effective than the Catholic Church in stemming the tide of publicly known complaints against it. Until quite recently, in Australia, the Salvation Army did not spring readily to mind when mention was made of institutional child abuse. In two recent hearings by the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, however, it transpired that the organization has a long and bloody history of abusing children in its care (continued to the present day), and that it has mirrored the behavior of the Catholic Church and other culpable institutions in defying regulators and looking after its own at the expense of the right of children to go unharmed. (Please see the links here and here for transcripts and evidence presented to the Royal Commission’s two case studies on the Salvation Army.)

What has also come out, however, is a far greater than usual level of extraordinary brutality and sadism associated with most of the abuse cases that have been revealed, a very proactive approach by the Australian Salvation Army in running around the country silencing victims with confidentiality agreements, and an until-now almost universal level of public trust (the organization boasts an 98% approval rating to potential corporate sponsors). These factors, but particularly the latter, have combined to prevent victims from speaking out in large numbers – until now. I believe strongly that society’s extraordinarily high level of public trust in the Salvation Army in the United States may well be a devastatingly effective barrier to victims speaking up against it – as we all know, abusers flourish in environments in which people are not looking at them with suspicion. 

Another distinguishing factor in relation to the Salvation Army is that there may be an even higher propensity for covering up of child abuse is the strong family-based nature of the organization, something that is not widely known. While members of institutions may protect their own because of fears of loss of reputation, costs associated with compensating victims, or a belief that there’s nothing really wrong with child abuse, in the case of the Salvation Army, there’s an additional factor that may potentially be responsible for higher levels of cover-ups – strong ties of blood and marriage. As I say, the Salvation Army in the United States may be exemplary in its protection of children from harm, but given what’s come out in Australia, it would be a good idea to make sure. And the same goes for other organizations, whether or not they have already earned notoriety for covering up child abuse or otherwise failing to protect children or currently enjoy near-perfect levels of public trust.

The Importance of Scrutinizing Institutions

I said above that to solve the problem of endemic child abuse, we need to look at laws, individuals, societal attitudes and norms, and institutions. Here, I’ll confine my discussion to institutions, because, broadly considered, institutions can change or override problematic societal attitudes and norms that permit child abuse to flourish and either permit or prevent individuals from offending, and also because discovery of the societal attitudes and norms that allow child abuse to flourish are beyond my knowledge, and will be something for the commission of inquiry to discover and address. I’ll also leave off discussion of laws, as this is a far too complex area for me to cover in this piece. Suffice to say, the national commission of inquiry must obviously examine all the nation’s laws that relate to the protection of children, discarding those that shield abusers and introducing those that thwart them.

The national commission of inquiry needs to examine two major types of institutions. The first group comprises religious or secular organizations, societies, and other groups that have members who have access to children. These include church groups, charitable organizations, sporting or cultural organizations, and others. The reasons for paying special attention to these institutions are several. Firstly, as a society, it is imperative to know that institutions of these types that provide specialized services to families and society in the form of education, care, development, and entertainment of children are run in such a way that children are completely safe. Whether by mandate of law or an entirely valid desire to give children a better start in life, all people who have or care for children, to some extent, ‘outsource’ some part of the rearing and development of children to others. They need to be able to do so safely. All organizations claim to have “zero tolerance” for child abuse (or make similar, meaningless promises), yet many refuse to countenance criticisms of their practices that indicate that they have anything but zero tolerance for child abuse. Readers of this blog would, of course, be aware of the recent muzzling of Jerry Slevin by the National Catholic Reporter, as a case in point. 

Secondly, there may be a tendency for such institutions to hide instances of child abuse for the purposes of protecting their reputations and their members, which may translate into protection of their streams of incomes or simply their members, whom they may value more highly than children. In other words, perpetrators may be given more opportunities to offend and reoffend than may be the case in family- or purely social-based settings. In extreme cases, as we know, abusers protected by institutions have been given opportunities to abuse dozens, and even hundreds, of children.

Thirdly, at least in some cases, these institutions are very, very highly resourced and politically connected (for Jerry Slevin’s comments on the political clout of American Catholic bishops, see this article). These resources and political connections can be deployed to shield abusers from prosecution and silence others. Shielding may take the form of moving offenders where they cannot be apprehended, throwing lawyers at victims who speak out (see here for Jerry Slevin’s further comments on this) and threatening them with defamation suits, and other underhand methods. Regrettably, in the case of extremely rich organizations or organizations with members close to people in positions of power, there is also a high risk of what economists call “regulatory capture.” Put very simply, regulatory capture is a concept that encompasses at one extreme outright corruption by regulators / public officials. Institutions regularly make political donations, which never come without strings attached, and there is always the possibility that the condition attached to a donation is favorable treatment that puts children at greater risk of harm. 

At the other end, regulatory capture includes arguably more insidious and therefore more dangerous cases in which perpetrators are treated lightly or their victims disbelieved or ignored because of the presence of social or other personal bonds between the perpetrator (or members of the institution to which they belong) and people in positions of power. The Swimming Australia case study of the Australian Royal Commission touched on this kind of problem – see here as well for more on this). Powerful people often get together at fundraisers, social gatherings, and the like. Even without obvious ties of mutual membership of a group, merely socializing regularly with a person tends to lead most people to think more highly of them, leading to a risk of preferential treatment.

This last point leads into a discussion of the second group of institutions that the inquiry must examine in detail. This group comprises those whose primary or secondary job it is to protect children and prosecute offenders and prevent them from reoffending. This includes police, departments of prosecution, child welfare agencies and workers, health officials and other medical professionals, amongst others. These front-line workers are, bluntly, failing to make a real difference, even if they achieve significant victories in the form of identifying, prosecuting, and jailing individual offenders. If they were not failing, rates of child abuse would not continue to be so high. We need to know why they are failing in this sense and precisely what needs to be done to ensure that they begin to succeed in a meaningful way. Lack of adequate funding or training are obvious points that spring to mind. No doubt, the reader can think of others. I’ve already mentioned one possibility – regulatory capture – but there are likely to be dozens of other explanations – explanations that the national commission of inquiry must root out. 

What constitutes an ‘institution’ should be interpreted very broadly if the inquiry is to be at all effective. I’d like here to mention one institution of the second type that ought not to be excluded from consideration by way of example of the need to interpret ‘institutions’ very broadly. The country’s judicial system is an ‘institution’, and its treatment of child victims or victims who’ve reached adulthood must be examined as a special case. To see why, I strongly recommend that readers who interested in this aspect read Court Licensed Abuse: Patriarchal Lore and the Legal Response to Intra-familial Sexual Abuse of Children by Dr. Caroline Taylor. Although it is written about the Australian legal system, and is now a little out of date, it is still an excellent resource on how the legal system can prevent child victims from speaking out and their abusers being brought to justice.

The Time for Action Is Now

President Obama has spoken out strongly against child abuse in the past. In 2011, commenting on the Penn State scandal, Obama stated that, “our No. 1 priority has to be protecting our kids.” He also called upon people to “step up.” Now is the time for Obama to step up. To show that his words are not hollow, and that he is serious about protecting kids. To take the necessary action to end endemic abuse of children once and for all. The ball is squarely in Obama’s court. He must display the courage to act unilaterally, to have the courage of his convictions, and to convey a clear and compelling vision of a child-safe America to the public. He must have the will to fend off the likely attacks that will emanate from institutions that stand to lose from the inquiry. If he can do all this, he could leave behind one of the greatest legacies of any President in American history – a child safe America. 

About the Author

Aletha Blayse is the eldest child of Australian child abuse survivor, child protection activist, and blogger, Lewis Blayse, who passed away early this year. Lewis was also a mathematical artist – some of his work is displayed on Before her father’s death, Aletha helped him with his blog,, a daily commentary on the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and associated matters. She would like to thank Jerry Slevin for helpful advice about the political state of play in America, and William Lindsey for publishing this piece.

The photo of Aletha Blayse is from her Twitter page.

No comments: