2012 was a year of progress for child protection; 2013 will be even better

By almost any account, it has been a watershed year for survivors of child abuse and for the child protection movement, worldwide.  Here in the UK, we have helped our clients to stand up and confront individuals and organisations that committed or enabled their childhood sexual abuse.  We have also watched as other survivors in the UK and around the globe, particularly in the United States, Australia, and Ireland, raised their voices, demanded redress and inquiries, and were not satisfied with anything less than justice.

Was this year a tipping point for survivors? We may look back in a few years and consider it so.  It was certainly a year that child sexual abuse made its mark on the public consciousness and refused to be shunted aside.  It brought unprecedented disclosures from brave survivors and, in many cases, serious responses from political and other leaders.  Abusers who were once revered by the public and considered, by virtue of celebrity, past accomplishments, or religious authority, to be above suspicion and scrutiny were toppled for their crimes against children—people like Jerry Sandusky, the once-lionised coach of Penn State; Monsignor William Lynn, a senior aide in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia who wilfully hid knowledge of widespread child abuse and is now behind bars for to 3 to 6 years; and Bishop Michael Finn of the Diocese of Kansas City, Missouri, who became the first American bishop convicted of a crime in relation to the unfolding child abuse scandal.

And that is only the United States.  In early October in the UK, ITV screened its documentary “Exposure: The Other Side of Jimmy Savile”, kicking off a nationwide exercise in soul-searching and self-reflection over how Savile and his ilk were allowed to abuse with impunity for so long.  Australia was meanwhile wracked by a growing scandal over the Catholic Church’s concealment of evidence of widespread abuse there.  The Catholic Church in the state of Victoria alone admitted that more than 600 children had been sexually abused by its priests since 1930.  An investigation and inquiry have been opened into the Australian Catholic Church’s treatment of children and abuse allegations.  There is evidence of a pervasive, longstanding cover-up.

The past year wasn’t just about bringing perpetrators themselves to justice, either.  There was greater public recognition of the damage caused by abuse.  In the US, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) imposed harsh punishments and sanctions upon Penn State and its revered football program for its role in permitting Sandusky’s abuse.  The US state of Hawaii opened a window for victims of sexual abuse to come forward with civil claims against their abusers, even if the limitation period on their claims had elapsed.  And two significant cases in the UK High Court,JGE v The English Province of Our Lady of Charity & Anor and Catholic Child Welfare & Ors v Various Claimants and The Institute of the Brothers of the Christian School & Ors laid down watershed interpretations of vicarious liability, which may assist survivors of abuse by clergy in obtaining justice and redress going forward.

To be sure, 2012 brought its share of setbacks and difficulties.   In America, even though Bishop Finn of Kansas City was found guilty of a criminal misdemeanour for not reporting suspected abuse—a significant step forward in punishing the wilful ignorance that endangers many children to this day—he remains in his post.  In spite of widespread, sustained calls (including our own) for the Vatican to defrock Finn for his crime and his failure of leadership, and even a recent survey showing that Finn’s own priests have lost confidence in him, he is still a bishop and the Vatican’s support for him hasn’t wavered.  This sends a deeply regrettable signal that the Catholic Church is not yet taking its duty to protect children to heart.  The initiative to hold the Vatican responsible for the worldwide child abuse scandal also met a roadblock this past year. The U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon dismissed the case of John V. Doe v Holy See, ruling that the Vatican cannot be held liable for the torts of a perpetrator priest, finding that there was not a relationship of employment between the two.  Attorney Jeff Anderson has said that he will appeal the decision, but for now it represents a disappointing precedent.

So on balance 2012 was a good year.  But we expect 2013 will be even better.  The child protection movement has momentum, and people are listening and understanding the wide reach of abuse in our society.  The year has already started off on the right foot, with a judge in the US city of Los Angeles ordering the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to release the identities of Church officials accused of sexual assaults—a major win for survivors, and for the principle of openness when it comes to such serious crimes.

As a law firm we look forward to 2013 — to working on behalf of our clients to bring the fight to their perpetrators and their perpetrators’ enablers this year, so they can achieve justice and peace.