Everyone deserves the chance to grow up in a supportive environment, protected from violence and exploitation, where they can safely discover who they are and prepare to chase their dreams. Unfortunately, many children in the U.S don’t get that environment, and it’s not always bad luck or a lack of resources that destroys the chance of a happy childhood. According to the Crimes Against Children Research Center, at least one in five girls and one in twenty boys experience childhood sexual abuse.
Most of us were taught about “stranger danger” as children, but most perpetrators of sexual violence are not strangers to their victims, regardless of the ages involved. Sexual abuse typically happens at the hands of someone familiar to the victim and his or her family, often a member of a trusted organization. Even more distressingly, the organizations themselves are often complicit or even encouraging of sexual abuse toward children and vulnerable adults.
How Does Institutional Sexual Abuse Happen?
Once a culture of enabling sexual abuse takes hold in an organization, rooting it out can be extremely difficult. The more crimes a group’s leadership has ignored or sanctioned, the more motivated it becomes to prevent scrutiny and emphasize “loyalty” over ethics.
Sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, for example, has been an open secret since 2002, yet it continues to this day, through government inquiries in Ireland in 2009 and Australia in 2013. No such measure has been taken on the federal level in the U.S, but a recent investigation in Pennsylvania uncovered upwards of 1,000 new victims. That figure includes both boys and girls, but not the numerous young adults who were also abused by their elders in the clergy.
While 300 individual perpetrators were identified in that case, the church continues to fight efforts to uncover more information or make it easier for survivors to press charges. Some officials within the church have not only remained in good standing after their crimes or participation in cover-ups, but risen in rank. Complicity has even been revealed outside the church itself. One former District Attorney confessed to halting an investigation, in the hope that the church would support his political campaign.
Of course, this kind of behavior is by no means limited to Catholic circles. Protestant congregations across multiple denominations, and located everywhere from the American south to metropolitan Great Britain, have been at the center of similar scandals. Rather than deny the occurrence of sexual abuse, some Protestant church officials actively defend it, advocating for the grooming of pubescent girls as wives for adult men, and accusing girls who cause trouble of the “sin” of seducing those older men.
It sounds like a rare, fringe issue, but a survey of marriage licenses from 2000-2010 found a low-end average of 16,700 child marriages per year in the U.S, most of them between underage girls and adult men — the result of the practice of burying cases of molestation under the word “marriage.”
Nor are churches the only organizations that systematically harbor sexual abuse. The blacklist files of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) might sound like a comparatively reasonable policy at first, but beneath the surface, their effect is much the same.
The BSA has kept these files on known abusers for decades, ostensibly to prevent them from ever returning to positions within the organization. In practice, however, this internal regulation has always been focused on preventing the evidence from spreading beyond those private files, or resulting in any real consequences for the perpetrators.
These are some of the most extensively documented large-scale examples of institutional sexual abuse, but by no means a comprehensive list. Any organization with a culture of protecting its image and its powerful members above all else has a risk of harboring sexual abuse.
Recovering from Sexual Abuse
Sexual abuse can take a lasting toll on a survivor’s life, resulting in physical and psychological symptoms ranging from irritable bowel syndrome to major depression. The impact is often worse when abuse occurs during childhood, because the survivor has no opportunity to develop an adult identity and sense of normality before the abuse.
Survivors of sexual violence at any age may feel misplaced guilt and self-doubt, for example. However, those who are victimized for the first time in adulthood usually understand, on a rational level, that they are not at fault. Children, on the other hand, tend to assume that they were chosen by their abusers because of something they did, or something wrong with them.
When children are forced to build their worldview and sense of self around a history of sexual abuse, they may associate intimacy and approval with being forced to sacrifice their self-respect. Other symptoms can also become deeply ingrained and may include:
- Low self-esteem
- Body image issues
- Eating disorders
- Difficulty forming healthy sexual or romantic relationships
- Lack of defined boundaries and confidence in when to say “no”
- Addictive behaviors
Children who grow up within an organization that enables abuse also face serious obstacles to escaping its influence as adults. Education and career options may be limited. The threat of being cut off from family within the organization keeps many victims from moving on, creating a ripple effect through the rest of their lives.
What to Do If You’ve Been Abused
If you, or someone you love, have been sexually abused, you deserve to be acknowledged and compensated. Whether you were a child or an adult, you can still bring those responsible to justice. If what happened to you was ignored or covered up by an organization that chose to protect itself and your abuser instead of you, that organization shares culpability.
At the Stoddard Firm, we respect what you’ve been through, and we have the passion and experience to stand up for our clients against entities that exploit the vulnerable. Reach out to us online, or give us a call at 678-RESULT for a free consultation.