The temptation is to hope there is an easy fix that involves setting up training or some other measure that ensures against all future abuse. The truth is that this is a complex problem that crops up in so many places because it stems from an evil embedded in human nature. To guard against it, we need our institutions to act proactively, to create a culture of speaking up and acting on evidence rather than ignoring it.
The Catholic Church is grappling with evidence of priests who abused children for decades. This has prompted calls to allow priests to marry and to give laypeople broader authority in the church.
But the experience of the Southern Baptist Convention suggests making such changes won't solve the problem. A Houston Chronicle investigation showed sexual abuse at the hands of hundreds of pastors and volunteers, in a denomination in which pastors are allowed to marry and laypeople historically take on large roles in their churches.
And consider the problem of predators in our schools and universities, where the environment is different from church, and yet, sexual abuse continues to happen. The data on child sexual assault show a widespread problem. According to a 2013 study by researchers at the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, the rate of lifetime sexual abuse or assault at the hands of adults is 1 in 9 girls and 1 in 53 boys. If you were not sexually abused as a child, you almost certainly have a friend or relative who was.
It is crucial that institutions including schools, places of worship and child care organizations establish hiring and volunteer processes to screen out predators. It's also critical that they adopt procedures to halt predators who manage to avoid initial detection and to be actively looking for abuse so as to catch as it early as possible. We think the Catholic Church has come up with a good set of rules. Of course, it is crucial that organizations remain disciplined about following their policies.
Running background checks on anyone who works with children is table stakes. For employees, this should involve contacting past employers, too. Everyone who works with kids, even just to read to a classroom once in a while, should undergo training on preventing sexual assault and identifying signs of abuse, and what to do about it.
Outside of special circumstances, no adult should spend time with children alone, without a second adult. And concern about sexual abuse should be reported to the police. Not to the priest or pastor; the police.
Public lists of sexual predators are useful, and we applaud the Catholic Church and others who assemble such lists in order to halt abusers. We support the idea of the creation of a master list, either by law enforcement or a nonprofit, though we caution setting up protocols to ensure no false accusations enter the database.
In the end, it's up to all of us. Each of us must take sexual abuse seriously and be ready to take action when we see signs of abuse, even by people we trust. Religious leaders enjoy a special place in society. When those leaders abuse that position to abuse children, the most vulnerable among us are at greater risk. Decades ago, sexual assaults were swept under the rug. In this era, it should be clear that open and consistent public scrutiny is crucial to protecting our children.