In July, Monsignor William Lynn was sentenced to three to six years in jail for covering up a sex abuse complaint against a priest. According to the report on the BBC website:
Lynn supervised hundreds of priests in his role as secretary for clergy at the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.Then last Friday, Bishop Robert Finn was convicted of failing to report suspected child sexual abuse to authorities and was sentenced to two years of supervised probation for the hushing up of suspicious activities by Reverend Shawn Ratigan.
Last month he became the most senior clergyman convicted in connection to the US Roman Catholic Church scandal.
Judge M Teresa Sarmina said Lynn enabled "monsters in clerical garb... to destroy the souls of children".
"You knew full well what was right, Monsignor Lynn, but you chose wrong," the judge said.
I wholly welcome these convictions. Abusers cannot operate in an environment where suspicions are promptly reported and acted on. In this respect child sex abusers are just like other criminals, they have an interest in not getting caught. If they perceive that the risks of getting caught are very high, they do not dare abuse in the first place. So an institution with a diligently implemented policy of prompt reporting acts as a powerful deterrent to abusers. Preventing abuse from happening in the first place is by far the best protection for children. That is why in all my blogging one particular theme keeps coming up, the need for prompt reporting of all allegations to the authorities, and for it to be thoroughly known to everyone, including potential abusers, that this is what will happen.
If allegations are handled "in-house", the result can be disastrous. First, a school doesn't have investigators trained in this, so they will make mistakes. Second, the investigator is inevitably going to be a colleague of the alleged perpetrator, and may well believe "Mr X is a fine teacher, he would never do a thing like that", and so the allegations are discounted when they should not be.
Finally, even if it is established that abuse has happened, the handling of the matter sometimes also remains in-house. For instance Pearce was moved from being Junior School Headmaster to Bursar at the end of 1992 in response to substantiated complaints about his behaviour. At Downside, Robert White was prevented from teaching the youngest boys as a result of allegations which were admitted by White to be true. Stephen Skelton was given a good reference and sent on his way. In all three cases they went on to abuse again.
We need to describe in-house handling of complaints by its true name - protecting abusers. And when abusers are protected, they will often abuse again. A school with a policy of handling abuse allegations in-house might has well have a large "Paedophiles welcome here" sign above its entrance.
It is easy to see the temptation to handle it in-house. Management has a responsibility to maintain the reputation of the school (and its associated church if it is a church school), and a reported paedophile case is very bad publicity. So the temptation is to believe that the school's pupils can be protected and the school's reputation maintained all at the same time by dealing with the matter internally.
These two convictions, of Monsignor William Lynn and Bishop Robert Finn occurred in the US. Had these events happened in Britain, prosecutions would never have been brought, because - unbelievably - failing to report child sex abuse is not a crime here. It ought to be, not because I expect to see a large number of convictions for failing to report, but rather to resolve this conflict of interest decisively in favour of reporting allegations. A headmaster will hesitate to cover up abuse (even if he thinks of it as handling it in-house) if he knows that he might go to jail for three-to-six years as a result. There will be much more reporting at a much earlier stage, and schools will become far more dangerous places for abusers to operate.
This won't stop all child sex abuse, but it will greatly reduce it within institutional settings. And that has to be a good thing.