Priests, Savile, Weinstein, Oxfam: What do the abuse scandals have in common? And it’s not sex

It happened in the Catholic Church and the Catholic Church was blamed.

It happened in the Anglican Churches and the Anglican Churches were blamed.

It happened in the BBC and its most loyal defenders cried, “Surely not!”

It happened in football clubs and a helpline for victims was quickly overwhelmed.

It happened in Hollywood and people began to talk of a culture of exploitation.

Now it has happened in the aid world and reports this week are urgently examining why.

The man at the centre of The Times’ reporting of alleged sexual exploitation by Oxfam aid workers in Haiti, Belgian Roland Van Hauwermeiren, said the coverage contained “many lies and exaggerations”. Nonetheless the behaviour they have reported demands the most thorough investigation by Oxfam and the Charity Commission. Was aid given on condition of sexual activity? Were aid workers using donors’ money to solicit prostitutes? Were the prostitutes under age? These allegations have punched a hole in the moral aura in which we, usually rightly, hold the aid sector.

Aid workers in conflict and disaster zones risk their lives to demonstrate goodwill and humanity on behalf of the charity’s supporters and in the case of larger NGOs such as Oxfam, on behalf of the taxpayer. Reports this week on disaster response have shone a light on a high stressful working environment where people bond over trauma, where normal structures are demolished by disaster and a new normal has to be quickly forged amid chaos. From my visit to Haiti five months after the quake, I recall long hours of equatorial Caribbean darkness when outdoor relief work would have been impossible and long evenings needed to be filled. Such unusual circumstances may be instructive in addressing – though certainly not excusing – what led some aid workers to behave as they did.

Sexual exploitation has by now proved itself not to be limited to any one sector of society. It is far more pernicious, being the result of a toxic mix of power, access, dysfunction, opportunity and impunity. Abuse doesn’t only occur in institutions, and the above tragedies are not identical.

But a key theme is power, and an imbalance of it: the priest has the power to absolve, to approve, to bless. The 1960s BBC presenter and the football coach represented a whole galaxy of stardom of which adoring teenagers could only fantasise. The NGO worker has the power to give or withhold aid. The other party is made painfully vulnerable by their deep sense of need. And such exploitation has been facilitated by those in positions of authority turning blind eyes or moving offenders to new roles – where they simply reoffend.

I remember the power imbalance in Haiti. The sense of “them and us” was palpable – they were living in charity tents and could show us the rubble of their homes; we were staying in hotels which – not that we’d asked for it – had a swimming pool in the grounds. I recall we had been advised to stay in a hotel with good security, to protect ourselves and our kit from the high rates of crime out there. This inevitably meant being further from the rubble and the fields of tents.

There will always be power imbalances, and vulnerability can be short-term or permanent. To address the factors that cause someone to exploit rather than protect, accountability and support structures are needed, as well as protection for whistle-blowers and fair treatment for those who were harmed.

But in addressing patterns of sexual exploitation and turning around the culture that facilitated them, the experience of the Catholic Church may be helpful. Popes have met with victims and issued apologies, requirements for entering the seminary have been tightened up and each country’s bishops have been required to produce safeguarding protocols. Pope Francis set up a Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors and has repeatedly struck out against the clerical culture that prioritised the Church’s reputation above the wellbeing of children. The leadership of the Catholic Church still has a long way to go: the two abuse survivors on the commission have resigned from it, frustrated by the slow pace of reform; in Chile last month Francis angered victims by standing by a bishop accused of covering up for a notorious priest. The good work that was started must not be allowed to run aground.

After all, several other large institutions might benefit from replicating the steps they’ve begun to take.

Author: Abigail Frymann Rouch

Abigail Frymann Rouch is a religious and social affairs journalist. She has written for the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Independent, Channel4.com and Deutsche Welle. As a commentator she has appeared on Sky News, BBC Radio 4 and BBC World Service, BBC World News, and regional radio. For nine years she was foreign editor, then online editor, of The Tablet.

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