One of the reasons some people give for leaving organized religion is that they’re disgusted by the hypocrisy of organized religions in allowing sexual abuse to go on. But from what I can see, all of our human institutions are open to abuse. Schools, politics, the for-profit world, entertainment, sports — all of these human institutions are capable of harboring and hiding abusers.
I’ve come to believe that the next big abuse scandal is going to erupt in school sports. We’ve seen the beginnings of this in girls’ gymnastics, but I think it’s going to get much bigger than that. School sports often require very little supervision of coaches and other adult leaders, and many coaches and adult leaders don’t get much oversight from any authority that can really hold them accountable. We’ve all heard of those schools where the school principal would lose their job if they dared to criticize a winning football coach. But this lack of accountability and oversight is the perfect environment for sexual predators — which means that there’s a high probability that sexual predators have sought out positions in schools sports in order to have access to victims.
With that in mind, it’s enlightening to read Dan Kennedy’s blog post on how school sports are avoiding scrutiny for racist and homophobic harassment. The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA) has been stonewalling journalists who are trying to report on school sports harassment. This is classic behavior in situations where legal minors are being abused, where the watchdog is guarding the perpetrators rather than guarding the victims.
Journalists are reporting that the MIAA receives around one new complaint a week. Yet the MIAA is defying state public records law by refusing to make those complaints public. Ironically (or maybe not), the lead journalist working on this story is with the Boston Globe, the newspaper that uncovered the Catholic sexual abuse scandal nearly two decades ago.
Again, speaking from my experience of nearly three decades of youth work, the current situation in school sports may provide the perfect cover for adults who want to abuse kids, whether that abuse involves sexual abuse, humiliation, or some other sick power trip. The solution to the problem is the same as with the church abuse crisis: open and transparent supervision of all adults leading school sports; watchdog groups that don’t engage in cover-ups; expulsion of abusive adults regardless of how charismatic or talented they may be. But at the moment, the school sports juggernaut appears to be even more resistant to reform than the Catholic church hierarchy was twenty years ago.
More on this topic: Presiding judge in the Larry Nassar trial calls for widespread investigation into school sports — 13% of student athletes have been sexually abused during their participation in sports (see pp. 42 ff.) — child athletes appear to face a higher rate of abuse than average.
According to a recent news article, Vermont, Maine, and Maryland have removed time limits for law suits about sex crimes. Massachusetts, Michigan, and Rhode Island are currently considering such legislation.
What this means is that if you were abused by someone as a child in these three states, you have the rest of your life to sue them for damages. This legislation is in response to the fact that many people repress childhood sexual abuse until mid-life; but prior to this legislation, if you recalled childhood sexual abuse the statute of limitations would have ended and you’d be without legal recourse.
So who’s going to be financially vulnerable as a result of this legislation? Any individual who committed sexual abuse, obviously. But also any institution that harbored sexual abusers. The Roman Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts of America are the two best known such institutions, but there are likely thousands of other institutions that can be held accountable for inadequately protecting children from sexual abuse. This could include local religious organizations, summer camps, and a wide variety of organizations that sponsor youth programs. (Ultimately, I hope this will include sports organizations — I’ve written elsewhere about how sports teams have gotten an easy pass on preventing child abuse, and it’s time we started holding them accountable too.)
Now, I’m not a lawyer, and I’m not in the least qualified to give legal advice. But if I were part of an institution where I had good reason to believe there was a history of covering up or glossing over sexual abuse committed in their programs — whether by volunteers, staff, or clergy — I’d be worried right now. I’d be especially worried if my institution owned substantial assets, such as an endowment or real estate, that would make them an attractive target for a law suit.
I’d also say that anyone who runs any kind of youth program should be super focused on abuse prevention right now. If I were part of a youth program that got sued under these new laws, I’d want to be able to say that my youth program had reformed and was following state-of-the-art child protection policies and procedures.
We all know about the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic church. It continues to get a lot of press, to the point where if you say “child sexual abuse” a lot of people immediately think “Catholic church.” Which isn’t all that fair. While the Catholic sex abuse crisis has gotten the most publicity (and honestly, it deserves all the publicity it has gotten), it’s pretty clear that other institutions have their own sex abuse crises. The Boy Scouts come to mind, again because they’ve gotten a lot of publicity. But I’m willing to bet that the sexual abuse crisis goes beyond religion and scouting….
I suspect the next big frontier for the revelation of sexual abuse could be in sports. I’ve been thinking about this as I read about what’s happening in India. Olympic medalists have accused a politically-connected wrestling coach with child sexual abuse. There’s the usual denial and obfuscation. Eventually the coach has to step down from his coaching duties, but he doesn’t get arrested or prosecuted. The Olympic medalists engage in public protests, and the government arrests them instead of the former coach.
I’m willing to bet that school and youth sports provides many opportunities for sexual predators on the prowl. Many school sports programs have little accountability to anyone outside of the tight little world of sports — too often, coaches are essentially free from oversight by school administrators, and no one else is trying to hold them accountable. Some youth sports leagues might have even less accountability. When you hear coaches screaming and swearing at the kids during practices, you begin to wonder. If I acted like that towards kids in a church program, I’d lose my job — so if coaches can get away with that kind of abusive behavior, I have to wonder.
Sports is even more sacrosanct than religion. I’m not expecting any movement towards reform to come from sporting organizations (remember how everyone covered for Larry Nasser?). We might wish that more athletes blow the whistle, as is happening in India — but look at the price they’re paying.
I now believe the best solution is uniform child protection regulations that cover all youth programs, like California’s Assembly Bill 506, enacted in 2022. AB506 has some major problems — honestly, it’s not a well-written law — but the fact that it applies to all youth programs is really important. Sports programs have to comply, along with churches and schools. Of course, laws like AB506 still doesn’t address sexual abuse of persons over age 18. But it’s a start, a step in the right direction.