PASSING THE TRASH
The Catholic church is not the only institution that needs to confront, and
deal with, sexual crimes against children
SOME time around midnight on August 19th 1991, Mark Fry, a high-school history
teacher in a wealthy Chicago suburb, was arrested on a student's roof. He was
dressed in black, wearing a ski mask and carrying a can of Mace. School
officials, fearful of bad publicity, did what many otherwise decent people do
in such cases: they wrote glowing letters of recommendation for Mr Fry and sent
him somewhere else. He became a high-school principal in Wisconsin, where he
was arrested and convicted seven years later for molesting a student.
As the Roman Catholic church squirms in the spotlight over charges of sexual
abuse of young people, that spotlight needs to be shone in some other corners.
Sex offenders who prey on children go where children are, says Ernie Allen,
president of the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children. They teach
in schools, coach sports teams, run scout troops and day-care centres. Charol
Shakeshaft, a professor at Hofstra University and the author of a forthcoming
book on sexual violence in schools, has found that 15% of pupils are sexually
abused by a teacher or staff member between kindergarten and high-school
graduation, and that up to 5% of teachers sexually abuse or harass students. A
recent FBI child-pornography sting, Operation Candyman, nabbed a teacher, a
teacher's assistant, a school bus driver and an athletics coach.
On April 15th, Baruch Lanner, an Orthodox rabbi, will go on trial in New Jersey
for sexually abusing two teenage girls while he was the principal of a Jewish
day school. Orthodox authorities stand accused of ignoring evidence that Rabbi
Lanner sexually abused more than 20 teenage girls while he was in a position of
authority in the Orthodox Union's National Conference of Synagogue Youth. In
1999, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED described American youth sports, in which millions of
children are coached or supervised by unscreened male volunteers, as "a
ready-made resource-pool for paedophiles".
Why is it so hard to protect children? To begin with, adults are often looking
for predators in the wrong places. Parents teach their children to fear
strangers, yet abductions off the street are a small fraction of child
sex-abuse cases. Counsellors and teachers are trained to recognise sexual abuse
by family members. Yet a third group, so-called "acquaintance molesters", is
responsible for about 40% of sexual abuse cases--and a higher percentage of
crimes against boys.
The victims are often reluctant to come forward. Acquaintance molesters
identify vulnerable children and shower them with attention, affection and
gifts. The victim is left feeling complicit, and his guilt and shame make it
unlikely that the crime will be reported. Studies of sex offenders in jail have
found that the average child molester has gained legitimate access to children,
begun molesting by the age of 15, and abused nearly 120 victims, most of whom
never report the crime.
When an allegation is made, the victim is often a troubled or delinquent young
person. The accused adult, however, may be a pillar of the community--in many
cases, because of his eagerness to do extra work with children. Communities
desperately seek to convince themselves that a particular sex offender is
different because of his other good deeds. "Adult human beings tend to believe
what they need to believe, and the stronger the need, the stronger the
tendency," says Kenneth Lanning, a retired FBI behavioural analyst and an
expert on the sexual victimisation of children. He points to a recent case in
which 20 teachers testified in a trial on behalf of a convicted colleague,
describing him--without irony--as a "child magnet".
By and large, as Ms Shakeshaft points out, institutions protect the adults and
not the children. At worst, fearing legal liability and damage to their
reputations (and often prodded by lawyers and insurance companies), they come
to a private settlement with the offender. "The first instinct is to get them
out of your organisation," says Mr Allen. As in the case of Mr Fry, the
perpetrator is sent away with nothing but praise in the personnel file. Such
cases are so common that educators have coined the term "passing the trash". A
1995 study of 225 cases in which pupils were sexually abused by teachers or
other staff members found that in only 1% of the cases did the school-district
superintendent attempt to revoke the culprit's teaching licence.
That may be changing, in large part because the cost of covering up is rising.
As cases of abuse receive more publicity, parents and victims have begun to win
lawsuits against schools that either fail to sack teachers with a history of
sexual abuse or ship known offenders elsewhere. Still, an awful lot of trash is
being passed around.
What can be done? Any responsible institution ought to begin with a thorough
background check of all potential volunteers or employees, checking their
fingerprints against a national criminal database. Authorities should take note
of seemingly innocuous past offences, Mr Lanning says, such as trespassing or
Second, every institution should have a system of management and supervision
that limits the time any adult spends alone with a child. Listen to rumours,
says Ms Shakeshaft. Although only 6-7% of victims report the abuse to someone
in authority, most will tell their friends. "The kids tend to know," she says.
Lastly, a mechanism is needed to deal with allegations of abuse, some of which
will turn out to be false. Any proven case must be prosecuted to the fullest,
says Mr Allen. School administrators often believe that a tenured teacher
cannot be removed if there is not sufficient evidence to build a criminal case.
In fact, the standard of evidence is lower, and staff can be sacked even if the
case cannot be prosecuted.
Above all, parents have to teach their children to be alert, and must take note
of adults who cross the moral boundary. Let them remember that the problem of
adults abusing positions of trust and authority by preying on young people is
not confined to the Catholic church.