Like so many others, I'm upset by the recent news alleging prominent Catholic bishops, cardinals, and other leaders were aware of child sexual abuse and were taking action to cover it up.
We have been despairing for a long time. The Boston Globe's Spotlight report on abuse came out in 2002. The recent Pennsylvania grand jury report sheds needed light on stories that were hidden for far too long, but the stories are tragically familiar.
While Catholics all over the world are right to pressure leaders for reform, secular society's focus on the church may distract from the larger picture of protecting children and holding the right people responsible.
We should be wary when discussion of a broad issue is too focused on one organization. Child abuse happens across religious, national, and all other social boundaries. There are reports of sexual abuse of children and ensuing cover-ups in scouting, youth sports, public schools, private schools, the military, universities, hospitals, residential schools for Native Americans, juvenile detention facilities, and immigrant detention facilities.
No organization should be trusted to police itself.
Responding to child sexual abuse is a worldwide problem. Americans looking to change our approach would do well to consider Australia's recent progress in addressing abuse in institutional settings across society.
In 2013, Australia's government appointed a Royal Commission to conduct a multiyear investigation into child sexual abuse in institutional settings across Australian society. The commission held 57 public hearings, published 59 research reports, conducted 35 policy roundtables, and held private sessions to hear the stories of more than 8,000 people. Ultimately, it reviewed allegations of sexual abuse in more than 4,000 institutions.
The wealth of knowledge about child sexual abuse in institutional settings led to a number of recommendations.
One of those was largely accepted by the government and major institutions, leading to the launch in July of a "redress scheme" for survivors — providing support, access to counseling and redress payments, among other things. The Catholic Church, state and local governments, the Anglican Church, the Uniting Church, the Salvation Army, the YMCA, and Scouts Australia joined the effort, through which survivors can receive redress payments of up to approximately $109,200 in U.S. dollars from the institution responsible for their suffering.
Canada, Ireland, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and other countries have conducted inquiries into child abuse in different contexts, but the Royal Commission in Australia is a model in terms of the breadth of the investigation, the wealth of research produced, and the strength of its recommendations.
While the redress scheme is relatively new, and its design was the subject of critique for how payments are calculated, some 60,000 Australians will be eligible for compensation from responsible institutions.
Just as was true in Australia, here in the United States the evidence is clear that child sexual abuse is widespread and a new approach to resolving institutional accountability is needed.
Congress' appointing a commission to consider a national approach to holding powerful people and institutions accountable for child abuse in all its forms would be consistent with our traditions.
Calls for extending statutes of limitations to allow for more civil claims, although a good first step, are not sufficient. We need to focus on the ways our laws fail to hold perpetrators, enablers, and institutions to account, regardless of who they are.
As it stands, our legal system provides little incentive for institutions to be transparent, and between insurance and litigation tactics, there are few real consequences. Furthermore, the emotional, psychological, physical, and personal difficulties caused by abuse can make bringing lawsuits especially difficult. Far too many survivors never see any justice.
It is time to take child abuse seriously. Rather than wallow in our despair, we should take a cue from our Australian friends and focus on what justice should look like.
Meredith Edelman is a postdoctoral fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University and a Ph.D. candidate at the Australian National University who writes about legal systems and institutional accountability for clerical child sexual abuse.