By Barry Goldstein
The abuse of children at these institutions is not an isolated event. It is well established that by the time children reach eighteen one third of the girls and one sixth of the boys have been sexually abused. The popular stereotype of a rapist or pedophile is some stranger lurking somewhere in a raincoat, but 83% of sexual abuse is committed by someone the victim knows just as it was at these respected institutions. This is an extraordinarily painful and uncomfortable subject, but society cannot protect children unless it examines the patterns that have facilitated these tragedies and create responses designed to prevent such scandals from ever happening again.
The Catholic Church sex scandal continued over many decades. By some estimates two percent of priests engaged in child molestation. In many cases church administrators including the most influential leaders reassigned pedophiles to new positions with access to more child victims or sent them for treatment and then permitted them to regain access to children. In some cases victims and their parents were silenced by threats or promises. In this manner the scandal was covered up for more than a generation until exposed by lawsuits and eventual press coverage.
At Penn State a respected assistant football coach is accused of sexually abusing at least several children. In one case a graduate assistant witnessed an assault and informed Coach Paterno but nothing was done to protect the children. At Syracuse University the alleged abuser was an assistant basketball coach. When initial complaints surfaced the school asked the law firm that helps them with compliance with NCAA regulations to investigate. The firm has no expertise in sexual abuse issues and there is no indication they hired anyone with this expertise to help with the investigation. The result was the coach had more years to abuse additional children.
Looking at the Patterns
In all three cases these are powerful and respected institutions. They had the trust and admiration of many in the community. Although children rarely make false allegations of sexual abuse, denials by these institutions tended to be believed. The media and law enforcement have relationships with these institutions and were willing to give them the benefit of any doubts. The problem was compounded by the myths and misinformation related to child sexual abuse.
These institutions are also wealthy. The Catholic Church was able to pay for the treatment of pedophile priests and keep the information secret. Syracuse University could afford to hire a law firm to protect their interests and create the illusion of a reasonable response. The ESPN sports network received evidence of the coach’s abuse and failed to report on the story for many years giving the coach the opportunity to abuse still more boys. ESPN has a financial interest in covering the sports program at Syracuse. Could their financial interest influence their decision against covering the issue at least subconsciously?
The institutions also had a strong moral reputation especially the Catholic Church. Who would believe that a church that aggressively seeks to prevent sex outside of marriage and especially sex between consenting same sex partners would tolerate and protect priests who raped young boys? Penn State and Syracuse University had the reputation of running strong and ethical athletic programs and so it was difficult to believe they would tolerate or cover-up for coaches sexually abusing children. Their moral stature made their denials all the more believable.
At the same time the victims had none of these advantages and this was not a coincidence. In most cases the predators deliberately selected victims who were vulnerable and less likely to be believed. Their victims were young, had no influence in the world and not likely to be given credibility. For obvious reasons the pedophiles abused the children at a time and place where there would be no witnesses with few exceptions. Even when an incident was witnessed at Penn State, the failures of the university permitted the coach to continue his abuse.
Sexual abuse has profound negative effects on children. This experience often contributes to the child making poor choices even into their adulthood. These poor choices often get them into trouble which further undermines their credibility. Many aspects of sexual abuse, like domestic violence are counterintuitive which makes it harder for non experts to recognize and believe valid complaints. Throughout the scandals at the three institutions we heard journalists, law enforcement and other professionals without training about sexual abuse making statements to the effect that the long time it took the children to report the abuse made the reports less credible. In reality, this is a normal response for many reasons including threats, fear, embarrassment, guilt and the realistic danger that no one will believe them. This widespread ignorance from professionals and the general public (who will serve on any juries) gives sexual abusers an additional advantage.
Difficulty of Proving Child Sexual Abuse
There are many reasons why child sexual abuse is hard to prove and this applies to custody cases, criminal cases and tort cases. There are rarely witnesses to the assault for obvious reasons. Many forms of sexual assault leave no physical evidence and when there is evidence it may have disappeared by the time the child reveals the abuse. One of the biggest obstacles to proving sexual abuse in a court of law is the widespread myth that women and children often make false allegations of abuse. This is especially problematic in custody cases where most evaluators and court professionals are given inadequate domestic violence training and those without proper training are more likely to believe the myth.
Children face a lot of pressures not to reveal the abuse. Abusers often threaten to harm them or their family if they tell anyone. They are also threatened that no one will believe them and the frequency with which professionals disbelieve valid complaints by children supports this threat. When the abuse is committed by a father or other family member, the child may still love their abuser or not want to get him in trouble. Revealing something that is so painful, embarrassing and uncomfortable is difficult and often requires a lot of support which the child may not have. Children (and adults) respond to traumatic events with a variety of defense mechanisms. This is a survival mechanism that may be the best way to cope with an impossible situation. This may cause the child not to remember or otherwise delay the reports. Many people including unqualified professionals often believe the delay raises doubts about the victim’s credibility. It is common for victims of abuse to engage in illegal or other unwise behaviors that further undermine their credibility. One of the alleged Syracuse victims is charged with molesting another boy.
An important factor that helped the scandals in the Catholic Church, Penn State and Syracuse University as well as the custody court system continue as long as they did is the widespread disinclination to believe that someone who is successful in other parts of his life could do something so disgusting. This applies to the priests who assaulted children, the assistant coaches at the two universities and many of the fathers in custody court cases. Many professionals cannot imagine that people like this could commit these crimes and so never conduct an effective investigation. This factor probably contributed to the lame investigations by police and the media regarding Syracuse University as well as the investigations by Penn State and Syracuse Universities. In the custody court, the frequent use of mental health professionals without expertise in child sexual abuse and use of the bogus Parental Alienation Syndrome contribute to the widespread failure of court professionals to believe valid allegations of child sexual abuse. Initial complaints by victims in the Catholic Church child sex abuse scandal were probably taken less seriously because they were made against clergy who would be expected to maintain high moral standards.
When child sexual abuse complaints are investigated, most are initially investigated for purposes of criminal prosecution. In the Syracuse University case, for instance it appears some of the allegations were investigated by the police and the law firm and the failure to find sufficient evidence to be able to convince a jury of the validity of the complaint beyond a reasonable doubt led to closing the case which was widely interpreted as establishing the complaints were invalid. This is part of a widespread problem about the lack of critical thinking in responding to abuse complaints.
Consider a fundamental question of what is the purpose of investigating allegations of child sexual abuse. For law enforcement the purpose is to determine if a crime has been committed and if there is sufficient evidence to bring charges. For other institutions such as schools, religious institutions, custody courts or child protective agencies, the primary purpose should be to determine if the alleged offender presents a risk to children and if so to take steps to make sure the children are protected. Too often when law enforcement believes it cannot prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt and closes the case, other institutions treat this as if the perpetrator has been vindicated.
Beyond a reasonable doubt is a heavy evidentiary burden to meet under the best of circumstances and even more difficult in cases that are notoriously hard to prove. Our system of justice deliberately makes it difficult to prove because the consequence can be taking away someone’s liberty. I certainly don’t advocate reducing the standard of proof in criminal cases, but there is no legal or moral reason to use that severe standard as a precondition for protecting children. Indeed when the issue is the safety of children any reasonable doubt should be resolved in favor of protecting children.
Given the high level of proof required and the added obstacles to proving child sexual abuse, circumstances that are normal to child sexual abuse cases and information that is of little or no probative value are often sufficient to convince police and prosecutors to close cases with true allegations. The necessary reliance on the testimony of a young child, the myth of frequent false allegations, the lack of physical evidence, the delay in reporting the abuse, inappropriate later behavior by the victim and a continued relationship with the abuser are all common circumstances in child sexual abuse cases, have little or no probative value but any one of them alone can be used to claim a “reasonable doubt.”
The widespread false assumption that the failure of law enforcement to press criminal charges means the allegations were probably false automatically eliminate most valid cases. This encourages the institutions discussed in this article and others to take no steps to safeguard children from a possible or even likely sexual offender. Using the beyond a reasonable doubt standard to determine who goes to jail is reasonable, but using the same standard to decide whether to protect children is unconscionable. We see a similar problem with many child protective agencies that can either determine abuse allegations are unfounded or indicated. When the caseworkers believe there is not enough evidence to bring charges they are required to close the case. In many cases the evidence is ambiguous or a fair assessment is they are not sure whether or not the allegations are true. Many agencies do not have the option of saying they cannot determine the validity of the allegation and leave the case open. The result is that many children are exposed to dangerous abusers in this way. Even worse, artificial deadlines, limited resources, the use of unqualified professionals and flawed practices undermine the ability to establish the evidence needed to protect children.
It took the media far too long to expose the long and sordid history of widespread sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church. It appears some members of the media had strong proof about sexual abuse by the assistant coach of the Syracuse University Basketball team. In each case they failed to expose the scandal and protect children. When the press did start covering the scandals at the Catholic Church, Penn State and Syracuse University they became major stories. In many ways the biggest part of each of these stories was not the sexual abuse committed by employees of these institutions but the cover-up that many of the leaders of these institutions participated in. The stories and the effect on the institutions would be far different if the leaders had quickly investigated the allegations, reported the abuse and taken steps to protect children.
It appears the cover-up by the Catholic Church is responsible for approximately 100,000 children suffering from attacks by the clergy. In fairness to the custody court system, the complaint is not that judges are sexually assaulting children but they are sending children to live with dangerous abusers. Current scientific research establishes that every year 58,000 children are sent for custody or unprotected visitation with dangerous abusers. This is caused by the widespread flawed and discredited practices used in the custody courts and the extreme defensiveness in responding to complaints from protective mothers and professionals supporting them. These tragedies have continued since at least the late 1970s although the numbers were probably significantly lower in the earlier years before the male supremacist movement and the cottage industry of professionals who earn their living supporting abusive fathers made going after custody the leading tactic to prevent battered women from leaving their abusers. A significant portion of the 58,000 children victimized each year by flawed practices in the custody court system are not sexually abused but abused physically or witness their mothers’ abuse by their father. Nevertheless the number of children subjected to sexual abuse through the practices in the custody court system is probably much higher than the number abused in the Catholic Church.
We know the custody courts are getting a very high percentage of their contested sexual abuse cases wrong because they are giving custody to the alleged abuser in 85% of the cases despite the research that establishes deliberately false complaints by mothers and children is extremely rare. In a majority of the cases with sexual abuse allegations the charges are true, many others involve boundary violations that do not have to disqualify the father for normal visitation but certainly should discourage giving him custody. The problem is that when the court disbelieves the abuse allegations it tends to punish the mother by taking custody away from her and often limiting her to supervised or no visitation. These are decisions that are extremely harmful to children. Most attorneys have little or no expertise about sexual abuse and yet they routinely discourage mothers from making sexual abuse allegations even with substantial proof because they know the likely result would be for the mother to lose custody.
Perhaps even more convincing than outcome studies is the routine use by custody courts of deeply flawed practices that give judges little chance to protect children from sexual predators. The new Department of Justice study found that most evaluators and other court professionals have inadequate training concerning domestic violence and those with inadequate training are likely to believe the myth that mothers frequently make false allegations of abuse and in turn make recommendations that harm children. In custody cases with sexual abuse allegations this means many of the evaluators and other professionals the courts rely on consider only the possibility that the allegations are true or the mother is making deliberate false allegations to undermine the children’s relationship with their father. The difficulty in proving child sexual abuse, widespread failure to use best investigative practices and the bias caused by the myth cause these professionals to routinely assume false allegations even when there is strong evidence supporting the mother’s allegations. Although boundary violations (which can cause children to act out in sexualized ways) and ambiguous information that may be inconclusive are far more likely than deliberate falsehoods, the inadequately trained professionals rarely even consider these possibilities and jump right to punishing the mothers by removing custody and often restricting visitation. This not only increases the risk to children but helps abusive fathers silence the children so that their continuing abuse is unlikely to be revealed.
Although the burden of proof in custody cases is typically preponderance of the evidence which translates to something just over 50%, as with the other institutions discussed in this article many court professionals use the failure of law enforcement to bring criminal charges as evidence the charges are false. Similarly they also use the failure of child protective agencies to press charges as proof of false charges. Of course the inability to prove something beyond a reasonable doubt does not establish it cannot be proven by a preponderance of the evidence. Significantly over forty states and many judicial districts created court-sponsored gender bias committees that have found widespread bias against women including requiring women to meet higher standards of proof than men. The frequent use of the lack of criminal or child protective charges as if it were proof of false allegations is a common example of placing an illegal evidentiary burden on protective mothers.
When children are sexually abused it is a painful and embarrassing experience. Like women who are raped, it is not something children are comfortable discussing. Accordingly best practices for therapists or investigators would be to take the time to develop a trusting relationship with the child before expecting the child to discuss truly painful experiences. For younger children it is particularly useful to use play therapy. This permits children to reveal whatever happened unconsciously which has the added advantage of preventing parents or others from influencing what they say. Unfortunately court professionals rarely use these best practices. We often see cases in which the caseworker or other investigator asks a few general questions like favorite food or how they like school and quickly ask questions about the alleged abuse. When a child refuses to discuss the issue or otherwise deflects the question the professional often assumes the allegations are false or at least cannot be proven.
One of the problems with custody courts’ response to domestic violence is their reliance on a half sentence. The part they have heard often is that children do better with both parents in their lives. The rest of the sentence is unless one of the parents is abusive. Having missed the critical remainder of the sentence, court professionals are often particularly anxious to actively involve the father in the children’s lives. In many cases with allegations of sexual abuse the court will initially limit the alleged abuser to supervised visitation, but there is tremendous pressure to make sure the father resumes normal visitation as quickly as possible (tellingly the courts don’t seem to feel the same pressure when mother’s are limited to supervised visitation based on alienation claims or mental health diagnoses that don’t seem to impact other parts of her life or her ability to parent the children). Accordingly the professionals rush to complete investigations, fail to use best practices and seek to reunite the father and children as quickly as possible. This results in the frequent denial of valid complaints and quickly gives the father the opportunity to silence the children. If children’s safety were the first priority as it should be and as I believe most judges would say they favor, the outcomes would be very different.
The Catholic Church, Penn State and Syracuse University had years of opportunities to take action to stop the abusers, protect children and save their reputations. Instead they waited until criminal charges, civil suits and massive publicity forced them to respond. Ironically the desire to protect their reputations was probably an important motivation for staying silent but that silence magnified the harm to the institutions a thousand times over. The custody court system is now in a similar situation that the other institutions confronted immediately before the scandal broke. For many years protective mothers and later abused children after they aged out of custody orders that subjected them to more abuse complained to the courts. Current scientific research is now indisputable that the use of flawed and discredited practices has resulted in custody courts sending children to be raped and beaten by abusive fathers. The exposure of the scandal is taking longer because judges and some other professionals are largely immune from civil suit, they have some control over the criminal court system and with a few exceptions the media has viewed the scandal as a dispute between mothers and fathers and have avoided covering and exposing the scandal. The problem is that they have failed to look for patterns so they could understand what is happening. The custody court system has reacted extremely defensively often threatening and retaliating against mothers and professionals who sought to inform the public of the courts’ failures. Like the Catholic Church, Penn State and Syracuse University, the custody court system is a powerful institution with substantial resources and a strong moral reputation. This has helped them put off the day they will be exposed. Their advantages have provided extra time but inevitably a sensational case or a prize winning journalist will expose the continuing scandal and the rest of the media will jump onboard. As someone who worked within the custody court system for thirty years I still hope and believe that they can recognize the problem, reform the flawed practices, retrain the professionals it relies on and start protecting the children in its care. They would probably take some criticism for waiting so long, but nothing like the coverage of the Catholic Church, Penn State and Syracuse University. Making the reforms voluntarily instead of responding only after the scandal breaks would save the court system a lot of trouble, money and damage to their reputation. I believe the scandals we have discussed in this article make it more likely that some reporters (and perhaps more importantly their bosses) will be ready to break a story that I believe has Pulitzer Prize written all over it. In other words the custody courts need a sense of urgency in creating the needed reforms for their sake and to protect the children.
Preventing Sexual Abuse of Children
This is a painful and unpleasant topic to discuss. This discomfort probably contributes to the failure of the media to expose these scandals more quickly. I am hopeful that the massive coverage of the tragedies discussed in this article will encourage the media to perform its role in exposing scandals and particularly crimes, and flawed practices that place children in danger. Already I have seen a wonderful article by Wendy Murphy, who every year makes a provocative presentation to the Battered Mothers Custody Conference, about the importance of accountable language in discussing stories about offenders’ rape and abuse of children. The media often describes events in ways that blame the children, invisibilize the perpetrators and describe the brutal and demeaning acts as if they were pleasant or titillating. The media makes similar errors in writing about domestic violence cases often creating a sympathetic description of men who murder their partners and sometimes their children.
One of the problems is that journalists, like judges, lawyers, mental health professionals, college administrators and the public do not have the training or expertise to understand and respond appropriately to domestic violence or offenders’ rape and brutalization of children. There is a specialized body of current research and there are wonderful professionals who have the expertise to assist courts, journalists and survivors. This expertise was not always available so society needs to get into the habit of seeking this expertise when confronted with these issues. There are mental health professionals who have this expertise, but it is not based on their academic training but on extensive practice with survivors and familiarity with current research. The media should not shy away from covering these stories even if they make themselves and the public uncomfortable, but they should make it a habit of seeking assistance from genuine experts.
Journalists need to provide context for their stories. Many people believe that women and children frequently make false allegations of abuse and that a delay in reporting the abuse is an indication of a false report. The news stories should include interviews with experts or references to research that provide accurate information in order to challenge the myths and stereotypes that are so prevalent. When the sexual assault case involving Duke lacrosse players fell apart the media failed to place the events in context by informing the public that deliberately false allegations are extremely rare and the results at Duke constituted a rare exception. They generally treated the players as completely vindicated despite what was at best obnoxious and loutish behavior.
One of the problems is the lack of clear thinking about the concept of innocent until proven guilty. We often forget that this applies only to the criminal justice system which cannot presume a defendant charged with a crime is guilty or punish him unless it is proven beyond a reasonable doubt or he admits his crime by pleading guilty. The system was designed so that guilty defendants sometimes walk free in order to make it rare for innocent defendants to be convicted. In other words there is a difference between not guilty and innocent. Innocent until proven guilty does not apply to the rest of the public or the media although the media must consider defamation laws. In the Kobe Bryant case the criminal charges were dropped and he later reached a civil settlement with his alleged victim. He has largely been treated as if he were vindicated although there is a good chance he committed the crimes originally charged. A civil settlement is not an admission. Instead it means that he may or may not have committed the crime just as a not guilty verdict does. Clearly the media could do a better job of explaining this. If the public knew there were pending or possible charges against the assistant coaches at Penn State and Syracuse University, parents could have taken steps to protect their children. This would be unfair to the coaches if they never acted inappropriately, but the safety of children should be the higher priority.
Indeed society’s response to sexual assaults against children ought to be changed to make the safety of children the first priority. There are valid justifications for statutes of limitation and charges from many years ago can be difficult to defend (and prosecute) with witnesses dead or unavailable and memories faded. Nevertheless the frequency of children not reporting these crimes for many years if at all and the frequency in which the perpetrator discouraged the reports through threats, gifts or promises supports extending the time for reporting to a more realistic time frame. As I write this the prosecutor in Syracuse stated that the charges against the assistant coach are credible but he cannot prosecute because of the statute of limitations. A court could throw out a criminal complaint if the circumstances and delay made it unfair to the defendant, but an arbitrary statute of limitations gives the court no alternative but to allow a likely sex offender to continue seeking his prey.
Communities need to have the resources and expertise available to support the survivors and develop the evidence needed to take the criminals off the streets. Child protective caseworkers and other professionals involved in these cases need better training and retraining to eliminate the widespread use of myths and stereotypes. Programs need to be developed for children to meet with trained experts who can take the time to work with the children, develop trusting relationships and give children a safe place to reveal what the perpetrator did. These professionals can then be expert witnesses to support the allegations both in criminal court and custody court. Some communities already have good programs like this. There is a cost to these programs, but what often gets overlooked is the cost to society of allowing predators to keep raping and assaulting children and of failing to provide the therapy children need costs far more in criminal, health and other costs. Attempts to save money on programs to prevent domestic violence and child abuse actually cost far more financially and in personal devastation.
The custody court system also needs to make safety the first priority starting with the recognition that the present practices are working poorly for children. Courts must stop using mental health professionals with inadequate training in domestic violence and child abuse and those who believe the myth. If court administrators do not believe they are routinely using unqualified professionals they should review the Department of Justice study led by Dr. Daniel Saunders. Other court professionals need to be retrained to stop relying on the misinformation that is so prevalent in the custody courts. They need to look to the specialized body of scientific research and genuine experts for assistance. When allegations are pending, courts must avoid custody or visitation arrangements that give the alleged abuser the ability to silence the children. Stop using bogus theories like Parental Alienation Syndrome that have no scientific basis and were concocted based on the false assumption that virtually every allegation of abuse is false.
When I was a boy, I was a big Yankee fan and my favorite player was Mickey Mantle. I did not know or understand at the time that he engaged in many inappropriate behaviors. Towards the end of his life he demonstrated remarkable courage and candor when he told his fans “Don’t be like me.” Recently, in response to the Penn State Scandal, Archbishop Timothy Dolan declined to offer advice acknowledging that the Catholic Church had done a poor job in responding to similar issues. He is right that the Catholic Church can never undo the enormous harm it caused to children in its care. Certainly they need to help the victims and take steps to make sure this never happens again, but that is not enough. I believe they have an opportunity to use their experience to help prevent other children from suffering similar life-destroying experiences. They should stand with protective mothers and their children (including many Catholics) to encourage the custody court system to make the needed reforms.
They have the influence and access to deliver their message and make sure it is heard. Priests can deliver sermons informing the congregation of the widespread failure of custody courts to protect children. They can support protective mothers and use the moral force of the church to pressure abusive fathers to stop their abuse and stop playing the custody card in ways that ruin their children’s lives. They can write about the problem in their church publications and gain newspaper columns to address this issue. Perhaps most important they can set up meetings with administrative judges. They can provide the research of how the custody courts have failed to protect children. They can explain the harm to the church of covering up for so long and like Mickey Mantle tell the judges “Don’t be like us.” I believe the moral way to respond to their history of tolerating the abuse of children is to help prevent other children from suffering a similar fate.
The 9th annual Battered Mothers Custody Conference will be held January 6-8 in Albany, New York. For more information check out the Battered Mothers Custody Conference web site. I hope to see many of you at the conference.