International aid agency sex abuse report could provide road map for Church

International aid agency sex abuse report could provide road map for Church

International aid agency sex abuse report could provide road map for Church

This is a May 21, 2015 file photo of an Oxfam store in London. A parliamentary report was issued on July 31 about sexual abuse in the international aid sector after it was revealed Oxfam staff sexually exploited locals in Haiti in 2011. The report might offer insights into the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. (Credit: Nick Ansell/PA via AP.)

A new report on sexual abuse committed by staff of international aid agencies could provide a blueprint for the Church in dealing with sexual abuse.

News Analysis

LEICESTER, United Kingdom – A new report on sexual abuse committed by staff of international aid agencies could provide a blueprint for the Church in dealing with the aftermath of the accusations surrounding once-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former Archbishop of Washington, and other high-ranking clerics that have come to light in 2018.

The UK Parliamentary International Development Committee (IDC) began an inquiry on the international aid sector after an article in The Times revealed that the UK-based agency Oxfam – one of the largest and most well-respected development charities in the world – had covered up sexual abuse by staff members in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake that devastated the country.

RELATED: Catholic aid agencies welcome UK parliament recommendations for reform

On July 31, the resulting report “Sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector” was published, and the head of the committee, Member of Parliament Stephen Twigg, noted that “the abject failure of the international aid sector to get to grips with this issue, leaving victims at the mercy of those who seek to use power to abuse others … must be tackled.”

The report brings up many issues in the aid sector which Church-watchers will find familiar:

Due to confirmed under-reporting, the exact scale is currently impossible to define, but practitioners suspect that those cases which have come to light are only the ‘tip of the iceberg.’ The lack of information must not be a cause for inaction. In addition to the abuse of aid beneficiaries, there is also evidence of significant numbers of cases of sexual harassment and abuse within aid organizations, including where the resulting proceedings have been conducted very poorly. There seems to be a common thread in this apparent inability of the aid sector to deal well with allegations, complaints and cases involving sexual abuse. There seems to be a strong tendency for victims and whistleblowers, rather than perpetrators, to end up feeling penalized.

One of the problems in dealing with clerical sexual abuse has been the inability to separate Church politics from this issue: Within the Church, there has been a habit to blame “the other side” for the crisis, with the ensuing tendency to defend the clerics on your side of the ecclesial divide and assume the guilt of the clerics on the other.

Yet these issues do not cloud the UK inquiry into the aid sector, which also covered UN agencies and peacekeeping forces, meaning it can provide an interesting prism in which to look at the crisis in the Church.

The parallels are striking: Much like the Church, a major scandal at the UN in 2002 involving its humanitarian workers and peacekeepers resulted in the first major inquiry into sexual abuse. Several new safeguards were put into place – however the report points out that, in reality, the response to the crisis was “reactive, patchy and sluggish.”

The report noted debates on what constituted abuse: For example, in 2011 Oxfam did not ban the use of prostitutes by employees in crisis zones, although they have now changed their policy.

The document also quoted William Anderson, the first person to hold the safeguarding position at Oxfam, who said “safeguarding was only valued in the abstract and was about ticking boxes rather than seriously looking at the dynamics that foster abuse.”

The report said Oxfam’s “concern for reputation was more apparent than its commitment to rooting out the problem” of sexual abuse by its staff.

The committee found that evidence points to a “sector-wide culture” in which sexual exploitation and abuse is an “open secret” and those who speak out are silenced and ostracized; this is coupled with a “culture of denial” that stymies meaningful reform.

RELATED: Catholic aid agencies pledge “zero tolerance” as sex scandal grows

Evidence was given that people were allowed to resign, rather than be fired, to “protect the mission” of the aid organizations in the countries where abuses occurred. Some organizations cited a duty to protect their staff as the reason they were not reported to the local authorities when they committed offenses.

“The Committee is roundly critical of the sector’s ability to drive transformational change. Action only seems to come when there is a crisis … and even then, it has been superficial. A reactive, cyclical approach, driven by concern for reputation management in the face of media reports has not, and will not, bring about meaningful change,” the IDC said.

For anyone following Church news over the past 20 years, a feeling of déjà vu wouldn’t be surprising. Looking at the report’s conclusions, it’s also not hard to see how they could be applied to Church reform.

The committee made several recommendations for the sector, including empowering aid recipients so they know their rights if they are threatened or violated; proactively seeking out victims and responding “robustly” to their complaints; establishing ‘zero-tolerance’ policies on sexual exploitation and abuse; making sure all accusations are followed up by investigation, and all confirmations of abuse must be met with accountability.

The IDC noted the vital role of establishing clear guidelines for referring incidents, allegations and offenders to relevant authorities, and said aid agencies want common standards for reporting, investigating and following up cases of sexual abuse.

“It is absolutely critical that we get the investigators who have experience of handling disclosures of rape. It is really risky and dangerous not to, because you risk re-traumatizing people and you risk compromising evidence that may be used in a future criminal case. That is critical,” Helen Evans, another former global head of safeguarding at Oxfam, told the committee.

The report also noted “purposeful perpetrators” can be opportunists and would not necessarily be filtered out by the system of “passports” and background checks commonly in place, and called for a global register of aid workers, where abuse allegations would be noted.

“The fact that a senior staff member [at Oxfam] who had admitted to sexual misconduct, had been the subject of other allegations, and had failed to uphold safeguarding responsibilities was able to remain in the sector undetected, underscores the urgent need for rapid improvements in the way that the international aid sector communicates misconduct,” the report said.

The report also said that a “failure to listen to and consider the needs of victims and survivors” will make any reform ineffective.

“Victims and survivors should demonstrably be front and center of all efforts to tackle sexual exploitation and abuse and this means the inclusion of victim and survivor voices in policy-making processes on an ongoing basis. A failure to listen to and consider the needs of victims and survivors of sexual exploitation and abuse will engender a response that is not only ineffective, but potentially harmful,” the report said.

“However, the vulnerability and disempowerment of the victims and survivors of abuse in crisis settings create multiple interlocking barriers to reporting,” the report said, listing the possible dependency of the victim on the abuser, fear of retaliation or stigmatization, and the social consequences of the accusation.

The IDC said whistleblowing systems, to be effective, need to be as accessible as possible, and recommended the establishment of an independent ombudsman that victims could approach if the normal reporting systems break down.

The report noted the impact of sexual abuse and exploitation “obviously and clearly falls directly upon the victims and survivors” and said often such people will already be “desperate” and “traumatized.”

For Church-watchers, the only surprising thing about the report is the speed in which it was produced. The first press reports on the Oxfam scandal in Haiti were in February – the committee was able to collect testimony, collate it, and publish the report in less than 6 months.

The next step will be a major safeguarding conference in October sponsored by the UK government Department for International Development. It might be an interesting event for Church leaders to attend.

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