Recent coverage (see Indianapolis Star, Washington Post and National Public Radio) of child sexual abuse allegations within USA Gymnastics and their policy of systematically disregarding accusations from bystanders, during which time numerous young gymnasts were abused by multiple coaches over the course of decades, is a sobering reminder that institutions too often fail in their responsibility to protect children from sexual abuse. This investigation should motivate other youth-serving organizations to adopt and maintain best practices that can prevent the sexual abuse of children. Indeed, how organizations respond to the first allegation can set the stage for whether child sexual abuse is prevented or promoted.
This is a lesson that every organization should have learned after the 2012 Penn State child sexual abuse scandal. Yes, we know that it’s very hard for people to respond to allegations of child sexual abuse when the offender is someone who is well known and respected in their community, but failing to do so creates an environment that places children at risk. This is why it is essential for youth-serving organizations to implement and enforce best practices for protecting children.
For example, mandatory reporting policies require that if you’re employed by an organization that serves children, you have a duty to report any and all cases of suspected child sexual abuse to authorities. Since USA Gymnastics is considered a youth-serving organization, their policy that child sexual abuse allegations are dismissed as hearsay if reported by someone other than a victim or parent clearly violates this responsibility.
Right now, most sex crime policies in the United States focus on punishing the perpetrators after the fact. But there is much more we could do to study and test programs and policies for preventing abuse in the first place. In the meantime, organizations must place the wellbeing of children above organizational prestige and adopt best practices that we know can help keep our children safe.