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Lifting the Veil of Secrecy: Stopping Sexual Abuse in Sports and Every Institution

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"When you have a veil of secrecy, you have the potential for abusive behavior whether it's in the Catholic church, a school or whatever, and that applies to all of us, not just the NCAA," NCAA President Mark Emmert told reporters Monday in Indianapolis.

As I've been watching the child rape headlines on TV over the last few weeks, I've become increasingly discouraged. The events are horrible, but at the very least, they have made public and visible the need for change in the norms of community institutions.

Each day, the coverage continues to hone in increasingly on the responsibility of individuals -- whether it be the alleged rapists, victims, or the most immediate bystanders. The seven-year-old son of a friend of mine, when talked to about child sexual abuse, said, "Well, I guess I have to not let anyone do that to me."

Of course, we all know that it is not a child's job to protect themselves from sexual abuse and the predators that perpetuate it; it is the job of the adults and institutions that surround him or her. It is not one or two individuals who have failed the survivors of child rape and sexual assault at Penn State, Syracuse University, and in our churches and schools across the country. We are failing our children. We have created a system that often colludes with perpetrators, supports them and creates a norm that allows sexual assault and child rape to continue. And by blaming individuals alone, we lose the opportunity to upend that system and create policies and systems that protect our children, instead of perpetuating harm.

We must demand that our institutions act in a new way. It's not just colleges, or sports, or the Catholic Church. To make sure that parents and children are not afraid, we need to reconsider and reconfigure the norms in every institution that they participate in. If those in power look away and excuse this violence, it's always going to be perpetuated.

In our work preventing family, community and sexual violence, Prevention Institute has identified the key norms that shape our environment and encourage acts of violence -- whether we're talking about battering, or rape, or child sexual exploitation. The most pervasive of the five norms is the one Mark Emmert identified, that of privacy and silence: that sexual, family, and intimate violence is a private matter -- none of our business -- and so those who witness it tend to stand by rather than standing up. One of our learnings from working with organizations across the country is that people understand this around individual behaviors -- but institutions have at least as much responsibility as individuals, if not more.

In the case of Syracuse and Penn State, this norm of privacy was solidified into bedrock and bolstered by the power of reputation, power and institutions. The few who dared to break the code of privacy -- a victim of an assault, a witness of a child rape -- were subtly but quickly silenced. It's unconscionable that institutions don't act immediately on child sexual abuse as a matter of course, and it's even more unsettling when they seem to prefer to not notice or react, because their stature, their profits, or their business would be affected.

Our colleague Cordelia Anderson at the National Coalition to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse shared her suggestions on the kinds of changes institutions can make. Organizations need to work to make sure that childhoods sexual assault and other sexual issues are talked about, to subvert the norm of silence. Childhood sexual abuse thrives when there is abuse of power, and acceptance of those in key positions and/or with significant authority as being beyond questions or challenge. Organizations can change their norms so that those who have power, privilege and authorities are trained and expected to use their power to help those who have less power, rather than to abuse or exploit them. (We've seen sports organizations make these very changes in their recruiting processes -- our most vulnerable children deserve that same protection.) Colleges can think much more broadly about prevention than the education that happens out of the college rape crisis center or their sexual harassment policy; they can recognize and expand the efforts where coaches serve as effective role models and mentors, and they can identify their role in advancing prevention not only on campus but in conjunction with the community. They can identify all the ways they are training and educating the next generation of citizens to effectively advocate for effective social change.

There's been a call for funding to be allocated from ticket sales of sports events and dedicated to centers that prevent child sexual abuse and exploitation; this is a piece, but we must re-examine and revise policies and practices to not only ensure reporting but promote a climate that insists on the safety and health of our children in the first place.

Institutions need codes of conduct, where responsibility for prevention of violence and protection of children is primary, and not something that can be shuttled aside. We're not saying that any particular person is guilty, that is a matter for the courts to decide; but we are saying there is a responsibility to report, whether we are talking about individual reporting, or organizations setting up environments that protect children.

As the National Coalition to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse & Exploitation stated this week, "the normalization of such abuse and exploitation for individual or commercial gain [should become] socially, economically, politically, and spiritually unacceptable in all communities throughout our nation."

That time has come. It's time for institutions to lift the veil of secrecy and stand up for our children.

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