Over recent years we have seen a growing recognition of the problem of child sexual abuse, both historically and non-recent, ranging from sexual abuse by celebrities, institutional child sexual abuse and sexual abuse within the criminal justice system (i.e., the police & prison service); which have resulted in a series of Inquiries in to institutional child sexual abuse in England and Wales (Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse), Scotland (Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry), Northern Ireland (Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry) and Australia (Royal Commission into Institutional responses to Child Sexual Abuse. It is not surprising given what these inquires have suggested, especially the historical ones, that there may be more revelations to come, and indeed three weeks ago with had the revelation of historical Child Sexual Abuse at the heart of Football in the UK.
Continuing revelations, disclosures and conversations of cover up raise a host of questions about the reality of Child Sexual Abuse, the locations of the abuse and the reality of safeguarding in these places. Whether it be about institutions (i.e., Care Homes, etc.) or organizations (i.e., the Football Association [FA], BBC, etc.) there are a number of commonalities that need to be considered:
- Safeguarding: All organizations should have safeguarding in place, those working with children and other vulnerable groups; but this must be more than documentation, it needs to be the lifeblood and within the culture of the organization. The issue is often not that there are not any safeguarding policies or procedures in place, but rather that they are not upheld or badly managed. With regard to the FA they indicate that safeguarding and policy conversations are harder to monitor, as well as uphold, at the amateur levels and we hear that policies are not always put into practice at grassroots level. This results in some institutional recognition of guilt, which is often after the fact, and a recognition that practice needs to change.
- Prevention: Tied to ideas of safeguarding is the need for work to be done in organizations and institutions to prevent, as well as respond, to child sexual abuse. Quite often the discovery of child sexual abuse results in an institutional response, a change in policy, a criminal conviction and/or an inquiry; however, if we are thinking about prevention being part of the fabric or organizations and institutions then some of this best practice should already be happening. The prevention of Child Sexual Abuse is a growing field but it has clear benefits for organizations and institutions in terms of workforce, development, policy, and practice.
- Communication: We know from years of research and practice that child sexual abuse thrives in cultures of isolation, where there is poor communication and little transparency. Perpetrators often convince victims that no-one will listen to them, victims are sometimes vulnerable and do not believe that they have anywhere to turn and society thinks that the state (police, social work, prison system and government) do not do enough and when they do engage it does not go far enough. Therefore, theoretically, this means that the more that we talk about child sexual abuse and neglect the more we become aware of it and are better able to navigate, prevent and respond to it. However, it’s not that simple as we do not talk about child sexual abuse consistently and when we do it can be in pejorative terms that reinforces social norms (i.e., “offenders - bad, mad or sick”; “victims - vulnerable, at risk or at fault”; “the state not doing enough for victims and too much for perpetrators”; and “it’s not societies fault or responsibility”) and pushes the blame away, which we have seen not infrequently in the historical child sexual abuse scandals (“there is bad practice and poor safeguarding, but it’s really down to a few bad apples”). We need to think about how we discuss child sexual abuse in our homes, schools, institutions, organizations and society so that the narrative is evident and available there and people feel more free to talk.
- Disclosure and discussion: The recent FA historical and non recent abuse allegations and disclosures are, as with the care home and institutional ones, particularly salient as they focus on boys and men. Research and practice has indicated that boys and men find it harder to disclose sexual abuse as it impacts their sense of masculinity and may indicate weakness in arenas, like football, were weakness is not tolerated. We need to work with young players to help them realize that disclosure is not a weakness and that they need to come forward and disclose abuse; there have been recent campaigns around this, since the FA allegations came to light a few weeks ago including a helpline and two video campaigns one lead by Wayne Rooney and another by David Beckham. The FA’s quick response to the allegations and historically cases enforces the need to make itself an organization that puts preventing and responding to child sexual abuse at its core; similar to what the NFL has done around domestic violence and sexual assault.
- Vulnerability: The conversations that have started to emerge from historical institutional child sexual abuse discussions have highlighted the degree of vulnerability of the victims. This vulnerability can be deeply ingrained in them because of their social class, culture, mental health of mental capacity; but it can also be situational, as has been seen in the recent FA disclosures, were victims talked about wanting to progress, to succeed and to move on and getting close to (as well as pleasing) the coaches was a way of doing this. The vulnerability that children experience can make them a target, or at least more susceptible to child sexual abuse by individuals who recognize and want to use that vulnerability. This reiterates the need for confident, trained and responsive organizations and intuitions that are able to identify, prevent and respond to signs of child sexual abuse when they present themselves at the earliest opportunity.
Although, the focus of the conversation is currently centered on football it seems like it may be only a matter of time before this crosses into other sports, nationally and internationally. We as a society need to recognize that we have to be able to work to prevent child sexual abuse, as well as respond to it, in a proactive way that sufficiently safeguards children, and opens up communication in a proactive fashion to discussions about how can all play a role in protecting children and in preventing abuse and exploitation. We could say that “child sexual abuse in football, just another example of a few bad apples slipping through the net” or we have the opportunity to be more proactive and recognize that child sexual abuse is a more endemic problem in all our communities and in many of our institutions and we have now have the opportunity to refocus our efforts on prevention and early intervention and on ensuring that the victims, survivors and those who have caused the harm get the help they need.
Kieran McCartan, PhD, & Jon Brown, MSc.