Why is There Sex Abuse in Churches & Charities ?

Sam Leith: The Oxfam sex scandal shows why doing good should never save you from scrutiny.

the Evening Standard, Feb 12, 2018

The scandal now enveloping charities and overseas aid agencies – with allegations of sexual harassment and worse – has caused an eruption of shock and outrage. Outrage, yes – but shock?

The central case of Oxfam – where workers are alleged to have used prostitutes, some of whom were under age, in Chad and Haiti – seems to speak to a culpably carpet-sweeping culture in at least one charity. But that a minority of aid workers behave badly when they think they’re off the leash? The only surprise is that we are surprised.

My Spectator colleague Mary Wakefield wrote a fine and fierce article recently arguing that, as an enabler of sexual abuse, the United Nations makes Hollywood and the Trump White House look like amateur hour.

All of it is well documented. A 2004 memoir by three UN workers, Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures, detailed abuses.

Mary mentioned several since: “rape-for-food” in the Central African Republic; a child sex ring in Haiti; systematic child abductions in Kosovo. Whistle-blowers have been suspended or sacked. Yet, as she pointed out, none of Manhattan’s #metoo marchers took much interest in the big building on 1st Avenue and East 42nd Street. Was her article much picked up? It was not.

This bears out a point first made by Aristotle: that ethos, the way the public sees a person or organization, hugely skews how they will interpret them.
We think of charities, foreign aid workers and international peacekeeping bodies as good things – and therefore presume they are staffed by good people. We give them the benefit of the doubt. Regardless of the good they do, the exact opposite should be the case.

They should be scrutinized more closely precisely because we are so inclined to think well of them.

Look at it from the other end of things. If you’re the sort of person who wants access to a large number of vulnerable young people with the minimum of scrutiny, and ideally with an unimaginable advantage of power and money over your victims, what situations will attract you?

In the past, boarding prep schools and the Catholic church have been popular choices but we’re a global world now. Why mooch around the school gates with a packet of Werther’s Originals when you can sign up for aid work in a famine or conflict zone?

Not only do you enjoy the protective presumption of goodness that comes from your association with charity or aid work, you perhaps apply it to yourself: the good you do for these people, you tell yourself, outweighs the harm. You’re showing these young people love and affection, of a kind, and putting money in their pockets. Is anyone really going to say you’re the bad guy? Evil doesn’t, as a rule, think of itself as evil. It makes excuses for itself.

You don’t find the bad guys under rocks, they’ll more likely be under halos. And to hell with the idea that reporting this stuff damages their good work. If the reputations of charities are damaged by journalistic exposés, that’s on the charities for not keeping their houses in order in the first place.

5 thoughts on “Why is There Sex Abuse in Churches & Charities ?”

  1. Paul,
    Wow! You’ve put what needs to be said out loud SO well. I’ve been trying to articulate what you’ve said but haven’t been able to. Thanks for giving us the words we need to caution those that can’t imagine “approved by the Church” prelatures, lay movements, etc can do evil even as so many good people are lending their good intentions, sweat, money & names to those groups’ service projects for the poor.

    1. Paul Lennon – Dubliner, Legionary of Christ [1961-84], mental health therapist living in the Washington DC are since 1985, bilingual Spanish, 13 years in Mexico, married to a pretty Guatemalan; I am "amateur writer", translator, co founder of REGAIN, INC, www.regainnetwork.org, Legionary of Christ "expert", member of International Cultic Studies Association.
      Da Man from Cabra West says:

      always on the lookout for ways to educate our Catholic and Christian readers

  2. I really like the sentence “You don’t find the bad guys under rocks, they’ll more likely be under halos.” Reading this post reminds me of something I wrote elsewhere after seeing the film ‘Spotlight’ a couple of years ago. What I wrote was an attempt to analyse the sorts of institutional and personal conditions that promote abuse and cover-up:

    “Seeing the film and engaging in this discussion have helped me to understand what I believe are the four factors that enable perpetrators of psychological and physical abuse to continue unchallenged:

    1. Both the perpetrators and the institutions in which they work are perceived as ‘doing good work’ (e.g Saville at the BBC, Marcial Maciel at the Legion of Christ)

    2. Those in charge of the institutions are self-important and unaccountable …

    3. The institutions are secretive and hierarchical, which of course reinforces self-importance and lack of accountability. (e.g. … the Vatileaks business also shows an obsession with secrecy)

    4. Individual perpetrators are often, but by no means always, charismatic individuals – again one thinks of Saville and (the erstwhile ‘living saint’) Maciel.”

  3. Terry, thanks for those helpful and insightful thoughts. Sad to say that predators, no matter where they are from or where they may be, are constantly on the prowl. Normal people have no idea about how they operate. Unfortunately, there are predators in families, too, and perhaps this is the most shocking, surprising. sickening and unexpected aspect.

    1. Yes, a lot of abuse (not just sexual) goes on within families, and of course families are also very good at covering things up, at creating taboos around talking about certain things. In fact the first three of my four points can definitely be found within families: a person’s family is often perceived as being a ‘good thing’ that should not be criticised; within families older members are often seen as being more important and therefore unaccountable to younger members (“Show some respect!”); and many families (certainly mine) have had secrets, skeletons in cupboards. So a family that lacks openness is just as fertile ground for the abuser as an institution that lacks openness.

      And thinking back to my own Catholic childhood it definitely felt that the adults in the family and the adults in the church (i.e priests) would always back each other up. So as a child I was utterly powerless in the face of this unspoken collusion.

Leave a ReplyCancel reply

Translate »