Australia Moves Closer to Compulsory Child Abuse Reporting by Priests
By LIDIA KELLY
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Australia's top attorneys agreed on Friday to standardize laws across the country forcing priests to report child abuse revealed to them during confessions in a move that could widen a schism between the church and the government.
Federal and state attorneys-general agreed on key principles for the laws, which fall under the responsibility of state and territory governments and which address the most contentious recommendations from a government inquiry into child abuse.
With half of the country's population identifying themselves as Christian, Australia has faced a crisis of faith amid worldwide allegations that churches and religious leaders had protected pedophile priests and habitually covered sexual abuse.
"Confessional privilege cannot be relied upon to avoid a child protection or criminal obligation to report beliefs, suspicions or knowledge of child abuse," according to a communique published after the attorneys meeting.
In addition, priests would not be able to use a "confessional privilege" defense to avoid giving evidence against a third party in criminal or civil proceedings.
Although most states have already been working on such laws, the unified position would implement a nationwide standard - but could also lead to a widening rift between the church and the government in a country that adheres to a secular constitution.
Archbishop Mark Coleridge, president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, the country's top Catholic body, said the Catholic Church supports "nationally consistent" reporting regimes to protect children.
However, he said, the church does not consider the removal of the legal protection for the "sacramental seal of confession" helpful or necessary.
"The removal of protections at law would be ineffective, counter-productive and unjust: ineffective because abusers do not seek out confession and certainly would not seek it out if they knew that their offences would be reported," Coleridge was cited as saying in a statement e-mailed to Reuters.
"Counter-productive because the rare opportunity a priest may have to counsel abusers to turn themselves in and amend their life would be lost; and unjust because it would establish as a matter of law a situation where a priest would not be able to defend himself against an accusation made against him."
In 2017, Australia ended a five-year powerful government inquiry into institutional child sex abuse, which came up with 122 recommendations, including that Australia introduce a law forcing religions leaders to report child abuse.
Australia's Cardinal George Pell, who is appealing a conviction for sexually assaulting two teen-aged choir boys, has been so far the most senior Catholic official worldwide to be jailed for child sex offences.
Catholic priests in Argentina sentenced to 45 years for child abuse
Court convicts two priests and former gardener at school for deaf students on counts of sexual abuse and corruption of minors
A court in Argentina has convicted two Roman Catholic priests and the former gardener of a church-run school for deaf students on 28 counts of sexual abuse and corruption of minors, in a case that has shaken the church in Pope Francis's homeland.
A three-judge panel in the city of Mendoza sentenced Nicola Corradi to 42 years and Horacio Corbacho to 45 years for abusing children at the Antonio Provolo Institute for Deaf and Hearing Impaired Children in Lujan de Cuyo, a municipality in north-western Argentina.
Corradi, an 83-year-old Italian, and Corbacho, a 59-year-old Argentine, were arrested in 2016. The court also sentenced gardener Armando Gómez to 18 years in prison.
The verdicts can be appealed.
The judges found the men guilty of 20 counts of abuse, including rape, that occurred between 2005 and 2016 at the school, which has since shut down. The 10 victims were former students and all minors at the time of the abuse.
After the sentence was delivered, several of the victims expressed their joy in the courthouse hallway by jumping and raising their arms in the air, as if they were clapping. They also embraced the prosecutors who had investigated their cases.
“I am happy, thank you so much for the battle, because everyone has supported us ... This has changed my life, which is evolving,” said Vanina Garay, 26.
The case has shocked Argentines – as did the revelation that Corradi had been previously accused of similar offences at a sister agency, the Antonio Provolo Institute in Verona, Italy, but was never charged.
The Vatican had known about Corradi since at least 2009, when the Italian Provolo students went public with tales of abuse and named names. The Vatican ordered an investigation and sanctioned four accused priests, but Corradi apparently never was sanctioned in Italy.
The defendants, who had pleaded innocence, declined to make statements ahead of the judges' ruling. They appeared somber as they arrived in the courtroom, with Corradi in a wheelchair, his gaze fixed on the ground.
In a statement, the Archbishopric of Mendoza expressed “solidarity and closeness with the victims and their families, who have reported suffering the most aberrant mistreatment” and vowed to “keep working to ensure that these situations are not repeated”.
The Provolo victims have said they did not feel that the local church or the Vatican were protecting them.
“The Argentine court has given the traumatized children of Provolo a measure of justice that the Catholic church failed to give them,” said Anne Barrett Doyle, co-founder of the online research database BishopAccountability.org, to the Associated Press.
“The horror of Provolo is twofold: the torture of the children and the church's failure to prevent it. We hope the prosecutors now will launch a criminal investigation of the archbishops and other church leaders who knew or should have known that the school was being run by a child molester.”
Doyle also said that “the pope too must accept responsibility for the unimaginable suffering of these children. He ignored repeated warnings that Corradi was in Argentina.”
Pope Francis has not commented publicly on the case, though in 2017, the Vatican sent two Argentine priests to investigate what happened in Mendoza.
Former students, young men and women, testified that the priests touched and sometimes raped them in their dormitories and school bathrooms. They also said they were forced to look at pornographic images. They said they were warned to keep quiet.
Investigators found records of complaints made by parents that weren't followed up, photographs of a naked girl on Corbacho's computer and chains he allegedly used to subdue one girl.
Many in Argentina have asked why Francis did not remove Corradi as the authority at the Mendoza school once he learned of the allegations in Verona.
Corradi's name appeared publicly in 2009, when 67 people said they were abused at the Verona institute by 24 priests, lay people and religious brothers, and specifically said that Corradi was in Argentina.
Pennsylvania's Sexual Abuse Laws Leave Survivors Conflicted
By MARC LEVY
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — When Pennsylvania overhauled its child sexual abuse laws this week after a years-long battle, absent from the bill-signing ceremony were some of the people who had worked hardest for the changes.
Some sexual-abuse survivors and victim advocates felt conflicted by the compromise package: Missing was a cornerstone of the recommendations by last year's landmark grand jury report on child sexual abuse inside six of Pennsylvania's eight Roman Catholic dioceses.
That recommendation was for a two-year window in state law to allow now-adult victims of child sexual abuse to sue over claims that are past Pennsylvania's statute of limitations.
Republicans who control Pennsylvania's Senate, in a party-line vote, defeated it, 28-20, after longtime opposition by bishops and insurers. As an alternative, they offered the longer, more deliberative process of amending the state constitution to create a two-year window to sue.
That has left survivors and victim advocates knowing they have little choice but to trust lawmakers to pass a resolution to amend the constitution in the 2021-22 legislative session. Then they may have to fend off a legal challenge or a well-funded campaign to defeat it in a statewide voter referendum.
“We had hope up until the end,” said Mary McHale, a Reading resident who told the grand jury of her experience 30 years ago as a 17-year-old in a Catholic high school. “And we're not done. We're not finished, this is just a different route. But it's hard when something's right there and it's tangible, and you have hope and then it's gone again.”
Among the provisions signed into law is one giving future victims of child sexual abuse until their 55th birthday to sue their perpetrators and institutions that may have covered it up.
Many adults in Pennsylvania who were sexually abused as children lost their right to sue when they turned 20, and they say they are powerless to go to court, where a judge can force an institution to divulge what it knew.
“When you talk to victims, the absolute biggest thing is discovery, holding perpetrators accountable to get them off the street, holding institutions accountable so things change,” said Patty Fortney-Julius, one of five sisters from the Harrisburg area who have accused their now-dead parish priest of sexually abusing them as children.
Lawmakers, they say, could vote both to change the law and the constitution.
“They presented this constitutional amendment as their way of ensuring our justice,” said Brooke Rush, who has told of being molested at age 11 by Johnstown pediatrician, Johnnie Barto, who prosecutors say spent decades abusing patients in his exam room. Barto was handed effectively a life sentence in March. “So, if they truly wanted the end result of the retroactive window, there's no reason they shouldn't have let both go forward together.”
While the Senate was holding up the legislation this year, Pennsylvania's dioceses opened temporary victim compensation funds. Many people who applied took the offer of money. But it came with strings attached: They had to agree not to sue.
Rush and others are now questioning whether lawmakers are committed to seeing through a constitutional amendment. They also worry about lawsuits to block it or how it might be fought in a statewide referendum.
“There are a lot of people with the money and interest to see that this thing never comes to light,” said Jennifer Storm, who directs the state's Office of Victim Advocate.
Storm worries about a TV ad campaign, warning voters that passing the referendum will jack up their taxes.
Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, predicted that a referendum will pass easily because voters who have read about sexual abuse scandals understand the need to deliver justice to victims.
“If we would put it on the ballot box tomorrow, I think it would pass with 90% voter approval,” he said.
Rozzi, a longtime sponsor of the legislation who has spoken publicly about his rape as a 13-year-old by a Roman Catholic priest, shifted his stance earlier this year to support a constitutional amendment after years unsuccessfully pushing for a two-year window in the law.
It was, he said, a necessary compromise in the face of Senate Republican opposition and the potential that a court challenge would block it. His change in stance caused a rift among victim advocates, including some who skipped Tuesday's signing ceremony.
But, Rozzi said, “they will understand when we get to 2021 why we did the things that we did.
Pennsylvania overhauls child sexual abuse laws
By MARC LEVY and MARK SCOLFORO
READING, Pa. (AP) — Pennsylvania overhauled its child sexual abuse laws Tuesday, more than a year after a landmark grand jury report showed the cover-up of hundreds of cases of abuse in most of Pennsylvania's Roman Catholic dioceses over seven decades.
The central bill signed by Gov. Tom Wolf gives future victims of child sex abuse more time to file lawsuits and ends time limits for police to file criminal charges.
The grand jury report spurred many states to change their laws and others to begin similar investigations.
Wolf said the new laws will help repair “faults in our justice system that prevent frightened, abused children from seeking justice when they grow into courageous adults.”
The legislative package was based on recommendations in last year's report on six of eight dioceses in the state.
Wolf, a Democrat, also signed bills to invalidate secrecy agreements that keep child sexual abuse victims from talking to investigators, and to increase penalties for people who are required to report suspected abuse but fail to do so.
Wolf signed the bills at Muhlenberg High School near Reading, in the home district and high school of Democratic state Rep. Mark Rozzi, a champion of the legislation who has spoken publicly about being raped as a 13-year-old by a Roman Catholic priest.
“We know our work is not done today, it's going to continue,” Rozzi said.
The grand jury report prompted a lengthy battle in the Legislature that pitted victims and their advocates who unsuccessfully sought the two-year window to file claims over past abuse against top Senate Republicans, who argued it would be unconstitutional. Senate Republicans, however, blocked it amid opposition by bishops and insurers, and as an alternative offered the slower process of amending the state constitution.
The multi-year amendment process has begun, but the bill must again pass both the House and Senate in the 2021-22 legislative session before voters will decide its fate in a statewide referendum.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, said the eliminated time limits meant prosecutors could file charges against only two priests after the report was issued. He said that if the new legislation had applied, some 100 priests could have been charged.
The report put the number of abusive clergy at more than 300, with most cases between 1970 and 2000. More than 100 of the priests had died.
Wolf and Shapiro urged lawmakers to take up legislation to allow the two-year window for lawsuits rather than wait for the amendment process to play out.
“By waiting, we are robbing the very victims who made this day possible, we are robbing them of the only closure before them,” Shapiro said.
The main bill in the package ends any statute of limitations, in future cases, for criminal prosecution of major child sexual abuse crimes. Current law limits it to the victim's 50th birthday.
Victims would have until they turn 55 to sue, compared to age 30 in current law. Young adults ages 18-23 would have until age 30 to sue, where existing law gives them just two years.
Police could file criminal charges up to 20 years after the crime when young adults 18-23 years old are the victims, as opposed to 12 years after the crime for victims over 17 in current law.
About two dozen states have changed their laws on statutes of limitations this year, including neighboring New York and New Jersey, according to Child USA, a Philadelphia-based think tank that advocates for child protection.
In New Jersey, lawmakers expanded the civil statute of limitations from two to seven years. The bill opened a two-year window, which starts Dec. 1, to victims who were previously barred from suing by the statute of limitations. It also allows victims to seek damages from institutions.
New York raised the victim's age for which prosecutors can seek a felony indictment from 23 to 28. The law also gave anyone a year starting in August to file child sex abuse lawsuits against individuals and institutions, and civil lawsuits going forward can be filed until the victim is 55, up from 23.
Global Child-Porn Sting Puts Pressure on South Korea to Toughen Laws
By Andrew Jeong and Na-Young Kim
SEOUL—An international operation to take down what was the world's largest child-pornography website resulted in heavy prison sentences around the world—but not in South Korea, where much of the material was uploaded and viewed.
The 23-year-old South Korean man convicted of creating and running the website received an 18-month prison sentence that will soon run out. Scores of people who were convicted outside South Korea of using his site were sent away for much longer. One man in the U.S. was given a 10-year prison sentence for attempted sexual exploitation of children and possession of child pornography; a man in the U.K. was sentenced to 40 months for distributing indecent images and a separate charge of drug possession.
The site's operator, Son Jong-woo, could face tougher penalties in the U.S., where authorities last month revealed the scope of the global investigation into his website and unsealed an indictment charging him with nine counts of conspiracy, child pornography and money laundering. The U.S. is seeking the extradition of Mr. Son, who is named in Justice Department indictments as Jong Woo Son. Seoul's justice ministry didn't respond to requests for comment on Mr. Son's possible extradition.
Several members of South Korea's governing party have pressed for more severe penalties and enforcement for child pornography and child sex abuse, driven by public outrage over the case.
While the country's maximum penalties for production and distribution of child pornography are on a par with international standards, the penalties for possession of child porn aren't. And courts rarely hand out such maximum penalties. One reason, experts say, is that the laws don't provide sentencing guidelines for judges, meaning that the courts have relied on precedent rulings that have historically been much more lenient. The government asked the Supreme Court this month to create the guidelines.
Wave of lawsuits expected after New Jersey loosens limits on child sex abuse claims
List of sexual offenders in Boy Scouts 'a fraction of the truth': lawyers
By DAVID PORTER and MIKE CATALINI
The loosening of limits on sexual abuse claims in New Jersey is expected to create a tectonic shift in the way those lawsuits are brought, giving hope to victims who have long suffered in silence and exposing a broader spectrum of institutions to potential liability.
A law passed last spring goes into effect Sunday and allows child victims to sue until they turn 55, or within seven years of their first realization that the abuse caused them harm. The limit was two years before the new law. Adult victims also have seven years from the discovery of the abuse, and victims who were previously barred by the statute of limitations have a two-year window to file claims.
That's welcome news for people like Dennis Bachman, a 40-year-old construction worker from Westville, in southern New Jersey, who plans to file a lawsuit alleging a female counselor sexually abused him at a home for juveniles in Salem County. He said last week it took him a long time to recognize he had been abused, in part because of a misguided societal view that says damage done to boys abused by women “isn't the same” as other kinds of abuse.
“Maybe (it'll) give me a chance to make things right,” Bachman said. “I caused so much damage in my life in so many different ways. I figured maybe this would give me a chance to settle some things.”
New Jersey's push for expanding the statute of limitations gained momentum from last year's release of a grand jury report in Pennsylvania that catalogued the experiences of thousands of victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests and the church's cover-up of the scandal.
Many states have overhauled their criminal and civil statutes of limitations in the last 10 or 15 years, but just a handful including California, Delaware, Hawaii and Minnesota have created so-called lookback windows for lawsuits. New York enacted a bill earlier this year that creates a window similar to the one in New Jersey.
The Roman Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts have both already been inundated with sexual abuse lawsuits that were filed when similar laws were passed in other states. The church opposed the law change in New Jersey, saying it wanted to push back the date it became effective. But those two organizations are far from the only defendants.
Attorneys Jay Mascolo and Jason Amala represent about 40 defendants who are set to file lawsuits in New Jersey. They said their clients mostly allege abuse at the hands of people associated with the Catholic church and the Boy Scouts, but that about a quarter of the suits involve other institutions.
Attorney Robert Fuggi said a key component of the law is that it removes an earlier provision that held a person acting in loco parentis, or “in place of a parent,” could only be liable if the abuse occurred “within the household.”
That will make it easier to take legal action against public schools, Fuggi said. It could help revive a suit brought by one of his clients who claimed her high school's assistant band director repeatedly sexually assaulted her in 2004. A state appeals court dismissed that case, ruling the “household” provision didn't apply to public schools.
“I think you're going to see substantially more claims against public schools than ever before,” said Fuggi, who said he has prepared several lawsuits alleging sexual abuse at a restaurant, casino, church, high school and hospital.
Israelis Speak At UN Against Child Abuse
By RACHEL WOLF
Ronit Raphael and her 13-year-old daughter, Sarah Raphael-Leitersdorf, spoke out against child sexual abuse at a United Nations event marking World Children's Day.
Israel's Ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Aviva Raz Shechter, initiated the discussion, which kicked off the 30th Anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. 35 countries participated in the event along with experts in the field of child sexual abuse prevention and organization representatives.
"Combating sexual abuse of children is a key priority for Israel," the Israeli mission to the UN in Geneva tweeted.
In an attempt to fight child sexual abuse on a global scale, Raphael, an Israeli businesswoman, founded The Global Army against Child Abuse.
The Global Army's stated mission is to "increase public awareness of child sexual abuse, and to pressure governments to implement stricter laws, in order to reduce the number of victims."
In 2014, the organization released a video entitled "Tom's Secret," which helps explain what child sexual abuse can feel like for the victims and how difficult it can be for them to express themselves. It also shows that when the abuse is finally brought to light, how those the child trusts can support them.
The organization described the animated short as "the first of its kind in the world ever, that on one hand guides parents how to identify child sexual abuse, and on the other hand encourages children to share."
The script was written by child sexual abuse experts from the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel and has been produced in multiple languages.
Raphael's daughter spoke about a particular case she heard and why it is important to discuss the difficult issue of child sexual abuse.
"I will be honest, at the beginning everything on the topic [of] child abuse scared me and I wouldn't want to talk about the fact that it happened to around 260 millions kids in one year. Then I realized that this topic is one of the most important topics to talk about with your parents, at school or just in general," said Raphael-Leitersdorf.
"I came across one story that absolutely struck me. October 2019 a 12-year-old elementary schoolgirl from Indiana was taught a prevention program and disclosed the abuse she experienced at the hands of her mother's boyfriend. This girl was abused more than 10 times in the summer of 2018. I'm honestly so proud she stepped up and had the courage to speak about the abuse that has happened to her. And only because in her school they had the program called 'Think First and Stay Safe,'" concluded Raphael-Leitersdorf.
Raphael thanked Raz Shecter, saying "Since I was exposed to the horrible statistics on child abuse, I dedicate one day every week to this critical topic. We will continue to develop new practical tools for education and prevention - and pressure governments to act."
The head of the EU delegation, Walter Stevens, noted his appreciation for the Israeli initiative and the importance of raising the difficult issue for discussion.
"Many thanks to the Center for Victims of Sexual Abuse in Israel who took part and partnered to create Tom's secret video," said Stevens. "And thanks to Professor Elizabeth Letrano of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore who is Leading a research project for children 11 to 13 years old who has shown initial effectiveness in preventing sexual abuse, in an academic study currently being conducted."
Masturbation photos' prompt Tunisia's #MeToo anger
By Rana Jawad
Photos of a man allegedly masturbating in a car outside a high school in Tunisia have prompted an outpouring of stories by women about the sexual abuse and harassment they have experienced.
They are being shared under the hashtag #EnaZeda, which means "MeToo" in Tunisian Arabic.
The man in the photos is a recently elected MP, Zouheir Makhlouf, who denies the allegations - saying he was about to urinate into a bottle as he is a diabetic.
Women, wearing #EnaZeda T-shirts, gathered outside parliament earlier this month when MPs were being sworn in, demanding the case be investigated.
The images were taken in October by a student who alleges the politician had been harassing her.
'Paedophilia and incest rampant'
Outrage over the case prompted Aswaat Nisaa, a non-government organisation meaning "Women's Voices", to launch a closed group on Facebook called #EnaZeda.
It is a safe space for victims to share their experiences - and the revelations have been a shock for the moderators of the page.
"Paedophilia and incest are more rampant than we would like to admit," moderator Rania Said told the BBC.
"Many, many families are hiding this, and many families don't even know how to deal with this."
There are a deluge of testimonies detailing allegations of rape, marital rape and sexual harassment.
Accusations have been made against people in the military, the police, universities, schools, the media and relatives.
It is not just women making the allegations - some men have also posted.
The level of engagement took Aswaat Nisaa by surprise, especially about child abuse that has been ignored within families.
"In the beginning especially there were so many stories about uncles, brothers, neighbours, the guy at the neighbourhood corner store," says Ms Said.
'My mother didn't help'
Aswaat Nisaa put me in touch with a 36-year-old woman who said she was molested by her aunt's husband when she was 14.
She had gone to live with the couple one summer after her father had beaten her.
"It started by kissing me on my mouth, he started touching my breasts," she said.
"I didn't understand what he was doing because… I never saw myself as sexual, my body as sexual yet, because nobody had talked to me about it."
This continued for several weeks whenever he cornered her alone, until one night he entered her room.
"He climbed on top of me; he tried to force himself, but I started to shout. So he was scared because my aunt - his wife - was sleeping in the other room," she says.
She did tell some of her relatives about it but they dismissed the incident, suggesting it was a sign of her uncle's affection, and offered her no support.
"My mother said: 'I lived through stuff like that, I do not think this is too bad.'"
She said she could not bring herself to report the incident to the authorities.
"If I was to accuse him, even if it's my right, I would destroy a whole network of family - I didn't want to be guilty of that."
Taking on family and culture
In 2017, Tunisian lawmakers introduced a landmark law to protect women against all forms of violence.
At the time some observers went so far as to describe it as being one of the most progressive in the region, possibly the world, because once a complaint is officially lodged, even if the victim changes her mind, the legal procedure continues.
But Fadoua Brahem, a lawyer who has taken on several cases of sexual abuse, told the BBC the law was still "in the transition phase of being implemented".
As it stands, the wider system and culture a victim faces before reaching court make a mockery of the law.
She said the first obstacle victims face is simply filing a complaint with the police, where often there are attempts to dissuade them from doing so by both the family and law enforcement authorities.
The health system also exposes victims to what can feel like a humiliating process because, for example, there are no specialised units to deal with cases of rape.
"A victim needs to have the psychological and financial tools to seek justice - it's not set up to be available to everyone," Ms Brahem said.
What #EnaZeda is doing is giving everyone the freedom to be honest about the sexual violence and harassment that is largely unacknowledged in the country.
There are hopes it might further encourage sex education both at home and in schools.
"In Tunisia the sanctity of a child's body is not respected," says Ms Brahem.
"We are families and a population that is very affectionate when it comes to touching and kissing. Maybe the parents now understand that there are things that should not take place, or that they need to be more vigilant."
For Ms Said the messages sent to the #EnaZeda Facebook page show a real sea change in attitudes - in trying to do something concrete to stop abuse.
"One lawyer posted that she would be willing to defend victims of sexual violence free of charge.
"Many parents have reacted by sharing resources like books about bodily integrity for children, in Arabic French and English, and thanking us and saying that they're more aware - that's my favourite part."
Sex abuse crisis can lead to conversion Church needs, theologian says
By Matthew Gambino
VILLANOVA, Pennsylvania - Since the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church broke open in 2002 in the United States and intensified globally last year, responses to it have focused on legal matters and administrative reforms.
But theologians and other faithful thinkers are focusing now on a higher dimension, and the question of where God is calling his people at this moment.
Villanova University launched the first in a series of four conferences on the theological perspectives of the sexual abuse crisis Nov. 1. Some 20 Catholic scholars from around the world heard a dozen presentations on the topic in a daylong seminar, according to Villanova professor Massimo Faggioli, a lead organizer of the series.
In a keynote talk to cap the first conference, Father Richard Lennan said the long-term response of the Christian community to the crisis should be an inner conversion of heart and fearless self-criticism - and not only among bishops and clergy, but all members of the Church.
A professor of theology at Boston College and a priest of the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle in Australia, he told 25 people, including scholars and visitors from the community, why conversion is critical at this time.
“A theological response to the abuse crisis recognizes that (it) is not simply an issue of governance, formation for ministry or pastoral practice. The sexual abuse crisis gnaws at the faith,” he said. “It casts a pall of suspicion over belief in a capacity of any human instrument, let alone the Church, to mediate grace.”
Lennan found in the working document of the recent Synod of Bishops for the Amazon a three-point formula that he believes may serve as a road map for the Church's conversion. A process of unlearning, learning and relearning can facilitate a renewed openness to grace and conversion.
Unlearning involves not only responding to criticism rising from the sexual abuse crisis, including calls for greater accountability and transparency among the Church's leaders, but broader participatory decision-making on the part of the nonordained church members.
Lennan observed that unlearning has “often been resisted by various segments of the Church or stigmatized as the Church succumbing to worldly (notions).”
But unless the Church's own resources “can prompt and sustain self-criticism and reform, the Church has no future.” Not that the Church will cease to exist, but it will not be what it must be: “characterized by a relationship between baptized believers and grace.”
The Church does have the resources to deploy self-criticism, and the leaders who are most in need of unlearning can benefit from the “light shone on certain styles of episcopal leadership” from the sexual abuse crisis, Lennan said.
Learning involves listening in humility, said Lennan, referencing Pope Francis's observation that if Christians “do not leave room for questions, the Church becomes a museum” that is “closed to the present and the future.”
The voices of survivors of clergy sexual abuse, the priest said, must be heard with compassion because they are a summons toward conversion.
Relearning involves returning to God along the path of discernment as “an integral aspect of discipleship” and a way to “discover again and again the God who is the opposite of the complacency that blunts the call to conversion,” Lennan said.
He suggested one example of relearning is to rethink church tradition not as a barrier to change but as a “deep and lonely soil that feeds further growth” so that it becomes “an instrument of reform as well as preservation” for the Church.
In the tradition of the Church, the shining models of discipleship were the saints, who are on “the right side of history” as the Church seeks to be because of their ongoing conversion, Lennan said.
“This fact,” he said, “can nurture hope for the present day church through self-critical reflection, through the unlearning, learning and relearning that conversion requires (and) through a renewal of the discipleship that characterizes effective conversion.”
The good news proclaimed by the Church “can change the world but it must first and always change the Church,” he said.
His talk ended the day's seminars on the abuse crisis, which participant Dawn Eden Goldstein found “was a great way to bring theologians together, to network and find others who are working to help the Church problem-solve at this moment of crisis,” she said.
Agreeing with her assessment was Sulpician Father Martin Burnham, a social scientist who has researched clericalism. “The conversations all around the abuse crisis really did wrap very nicely together even though no person came necessarily with the same topic,” he said, and all the speakers “really did zero in on the issue as it stands right now.”
He told CatholicPhilly.com, the news website of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, that he found hope in the fact that “people are still engaging the topic in very creative ways.”
The Villanova task force plans three more conferences at the university, which are free and open to the public, on the theological responses to the clergy sexual abuse crisis.
On Dec. 5, a three-person panel including Lennan plus Catholic theologians from Canada and Australia will speak on “A Light for a Church in Crisis: Vatican II in the Time of Pope Francis.”
On Jan. 29, the head of the Vatican's child protection efforts, Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, will offer the keynote talk addressing “Global Perspectives on the Sex Abuse Crisis.”
The series of conferences concludes March 21 with “The Church Today,” a daylong, multi-session seminar that will end with a Mass dedicated to survivors of sexual abuse in the Church.
Villanova philosophy professor and lead organizer of the final conference, Sally Scholz, said she hopes laypeople, clergy and religious “from around the region will take advantage of the opportunity to participate in this important dialogue.”
The importance of that dialogue was underscored by Lennan's observation that “the Church listens to the Spirit when all the members listen to one another.
Here's how we make the internet safer for children
Child safety on the internet is a huge challenge
By Joanna Rubinstein and Lina Fernandez
This year the World Wide Web celebrates its 30th anniversary. In that time, the internet has transformed every facet of our lives, from how we learn and work, to stimulating economic growth and increasing access to markets.
This year also marks the 30th anniversary of the UN's Convention on the Rights of the Child, the most widely ratified convention in the world. As we mark both birthdays, it is important to take stock of how this transformational technology impacts children. There are many benefits: it provides children with access to information, education and entertainment, and serves as a great communication tool. But like any technology, it can be misused and expose children to risk and harm. We have to ask ourselves, is the digital world today a safe environment for children?
Today, more than 50% of the world's children experience violence every year. In 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted by all the world's nations, representing a global commitment to a better future for all. SDG 16.2 calls for an end to all forms of violence against children by 2030; target 9.C calls for the expansion of broadband to reach the unconnected in the developing world where most of the world's children live.
In order to achieve these two targets, we urgently need to prioritize children's safety online. Every day, children are exposed to more atrocities online and we learn how connectivity enables the violation of children's rights. It is our duty to find a way to keep our children safer online without denying them access to the benefits of the digital world.
What are we doing to keep children safer online?
Some countries have put in place a regulatory framework to control the online space that's similar to the regulation of offline spaces. The UK and Australia lead the race in protecting children online. They have developed a safe per design and by default code that companies must follow, created child-friendly terms and conditions and appointed special commissioners in charge of protecting children's rights in the digital space.
Experts in the field have developed different initiatives and tools to guide countries and companies' decision-making processes towards a safer online space. Some of these initiatives are the WePROTECT Model of National Response framework and the Children's Rights and Business Principles (CRBP), developed by Save the Children, UNICEF and UN Global Compact, and the ITU's Child Online Protection guidelines, to name but a few.
Companies like NetClean have developed tools that help detect images and videos of child sexual abuse on computers in business environments. The NGO Thorn developed a tool that can be deployed directly onto a company's platform to identify, remove and report child sexual abuse material (CSAM). Thorn also organizes hackathons to fight child sexual abuse and exploitation. A different product, Griffeye, uses artificial intelligence (AI) to scan for previously unclassified content, compare it with the attributes of known CSAM content and flag suspect items for review by an agent, helping to speed up investigations.
Elsewhere, Microsoft has developed PhotoDNA, a tool that creates hashes of images and compares them to a database of hashes already identified and confirmed to be CSAM. Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, and Google work closely with law enforcement, governments and NGOs to develop tools and approaches for combatting child abuse and exploitation online.
Are we doing enough?
Early this year, The Economist Intelligence Unit launched the Out of the Shadows Index to measure the response of 60 countries to child sexual abuse and exploitation. This new tool also looks at the response of the ICT industry to child online sexual violence. The index and the survey of some of the broadband commissioners indicate that we are not doing enough; no country has a perfect child online protection system in place.
The amount of child sexual abuse material on the internet grows every year and just last year, technology companies reported 45 million photos and videos that depicted child abuses. We don't even know what proportion of all the images they constitute.
A recent investigation by The New York Times suggests that “many tech companies failed to adequately police sexual abuse imagery on their platforms or failed to cooperate sufficiently with the authorities when they found it.” Unfortunately, there is no mandatory reporting for companies in the majority of the countries.
What can we do to make the digital world safer for all children?
Based on the recommendations of the new Child Online Safety report we need:
a robust, effective and enforceable legal framework that protects children's rights;
a company culture that actively promotes child safety;
the education of children on their online and offline rights;
the education of children, parents, family, caregivers, educators, health professionals and community leaders in how to stay safe in the digital world;
age-appropriate online products and services to mitigate risks (this includes all solutions that are being used by children).
We need to keep in mind that children and perpetrators are not virtual, but real people. We also need to support law enforcement agencies with technological solutions and funding so they can rescue more children and apprehend more perpetrators as quickly as possible.
We need a multi-prong approach to improve child online safety with the cooperation of all stakeholders. More support, investment, engagement and technical expertise from the private sector is also required.
We have an opportunity and an obligation to save millions of children from unnecessary suffering. Failing to do so will render our societies incapable of deriving the maximum benefit from the digital transformation. A safer online environment will only exist if everyone plays their role.
Westpac scandal: a 12-year-old girl, online sexual exploitation and lax financial rules
The Westpac bank scandal has brought the role of financial institutions in enabling child sexual abuse into sharp relief
By Carmela Fonbuena
On 25 October plainclothes police barged through the red door of a family home in a dense neighbourhood in Rizal, a province two hours away from Manila.
There they arrested a mother who was allegedly sexually exploiting her own 12-year-old daughter. The 45-year-old woman was clutching her phone. Police took it and then handcuffed her.
A video provided by International Justice Mission (IJM), a global organisation fighting human trafficking that provided assistance to the police, shows the daughter nearby, her head covered by a towel, nodding at police. The rest of the family watched.
The mother did not deny her alleged crime, said Major Michael Virtudazo of the police Anti-Trafficking in Persons Division (ATIP-D). He is confident a court inspection of her mobile phone will confirm information they had been given by a specialised police unit more than 6000km away in Australia.
What is Westpac accused of, and how is this related to child exploitation?
The woman had allegedly been live-streaming her daughter posing in sexual positions to customers abroad, in exchange for cash she received through a nearby money transfer business.
One of those customers is alleged to be an Australian from Sydney, who is accused of paying to watch her daughter.
Technological advances have turned the Phillipines, a traditional destination for traveling sex offenders, into a hub of live-streamed sexual abuse.
John Tanagho, IJM field director in the Philippines, said the country's robust money remittance infrastructure is one of the enabling factors that drive the crime – along with widespread internet access and the availability of cheap broadcast-capable mobile devices.
The same financial facility that millions of overseas Filipino workers use to easily send money back home has allowed sex offenders to pay for live-streamed content.
“Livestreaming online sexual exploitation of children is not unique to the Philippines but it is believed to be worse in the Philippines than other countries,” Tanagho told The Guardian.
“One more critical factor is people speak English well. They're able to communicate with the online sex offenders from Western countries who speak in English.”
Westpac probe exposes extent of problem
The Philippines has grappled with the problem for decades. It doesn't help that it has become a family business for some, making investigations difficult when children refuse to report their parents.
In poor villages in the country, many are drawn into the lucrative crime that could earn traffickers in one day what they would probably make earning minimum wage jobs for a month.
It is why the role of financial institutions is critical. “In the first place, the demand comes from other countries. We can stop production here if they are able to flag suspicious transactions abroad. If there is no demand, there is no supply,” Virtudazo said.
Tanagho said: “They can and they should detect red flags. When they detect red flags, they should, in reasonable fashion, cooperate with government agencies so that those traffickers and those offenders can be arrested and restrained after a proper law enforcement investigation.”
The extent of the problem was exposed in a legal action the Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre, the government financial intelligence agency known as Austrac, launched against one of the country's biggest banks, Westpac, accusing it of legal breaches that allowed its customers to pay for child abuse undetected.
AFP investigates payments by Westpac customers allegedly linked to child exploitation
At a meeting on Friday afternoon, Westpac's board decided to appoint what it described as “independent experts” to investigate who was to blame for the breaches.
“The notion that any child has been hurt as a result of any failings by Westpac is deeply distressing and we are truly sorry,” chairman Lindsay Maxsted said in his first public statement since Austrac filed its lawsuit on Wednesday morning.
“The board unreservedly apologises.”
Austrac said Westpac failed to carry out appropriate due diligence on customers sending money to the Philippines and Southeast Asia for known child exploitation risks. The financial intelligence identified at least six Westpac customers with questionable transactions and a history of travel to the Philippines.
“In October 2014 and November 2014 Customer 1 transferred money to a person located in the Philippines who was later arrested in November 2015 for child trafficking and child exploitation involving live streaming of child sex shows and offering children for sex,” read Austrac's statement of claim. The customer transferred $136,000 to the Philippines between November 2013 and July this year and made travels to the Philippines in 2014 and 2016, according to the allegations.
Tanagho says a robust monitoring system is critical. “Banks around the world are monitoring suspicious transactions related to money laundering. In the same way banks and money transfer agencies should be monitoring suspicious transactions related to online sexual exploitation of children,” said Tanagho.
The arrest in Rizal was remarkable for a crime that is largely hidden, usually requiring police to take a deep dive into the dark corners of the internet.
In this case, it was dedicated work by groups in Sydney and cooperation between police in Australia and the Philippines that led to an arrest.
The investigation began in July when the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children referred to the Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation an Australian user who uploaded child abuse material to social media.
The Australian federal police commenced Operation Culgoa, resulting in the arrest of an unnamed 63-year-old Sydney man. A subsequent search of his home in the Sydney suburb of North Rocks showed electronic devices containing more child abuse materials that law enforcement would later trace to the town of Taytay in the Philippines.
The woman will face charges related to trafficking, child pornography, and cybercrime. The 63-year-old Sydney man appeared in the Parramatta local court on Friday.
The case highlights the importance of transnational cooperation. Virtudazo told the Guardian many of the successful arrests in the country stemmed from referrals made by other countries, allowing them to jumpstart investigations.
“Because it is a global crime, it requires a global response,” said Tanagho.
There's a lot of cooperation going on in the Philippines. In February this year, the Philippine Internet Crimes Against Children Centre was created as a hub for international law enforcement agencies to send referrals to the Philippines and allow local police to start an investigation.
But there are concerns, because technological advances are often a step ahead of law enforcement. Tanagho is particularly concerned with plans to have end-to-end encryption for messaging applications.
“It's everyone's collective responsibility to make it easier to detect crime and not harder to detect crime. It is important for technology companies to always to keep in mind protection of vulnerable children when they are designing their products,” he said.
Police criticise social media giants for lack of action over child sex abuse
By Mitch McCann
The world's social media giants are being called out by the New Zealand agencies tasked with saving Kiwi kids from online sex abusers.
Police have told Newshub thousands of children are at risk, and often parents have no idea what's going on.
Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, TikTok - you name the social media site, and paedophiles are on it.
Children now as young as seven are the victims. And it's not just abusers based overseas exploiting them, it's Kiwis too.
The demand for child sex imagery is shocking, with 50,000 clicks every day from New Zealanders trying to access this illegal material.
But police and government agencies are facing a roadblock as they try to save kids from abuse - the social media sites just aren't doing enough to help.
Last year, international group INHOPE, an organisation which assists in finding and removing sexually explicit child abuse material, reported that 1358 explicit images and videos of children were shared from our shores to paedophiles around the world.
Internationally, 45 million images and videos of children being sexually abused were found online by authorities worldwide last year.
Det Snr Sgt John Michael, who leads the police's covert online team, says he's still shocked by the material surfacing on the internet.
"It's worse than you could imagine. I won't even try and describe it to the public because I don't want them to think about what it could be," he says.
"We still see things that we can't believe a human being would do to another human being."
For authorities, the problem is three-fold. There's those who access these illegal images. There's those who make them, by convincing children to send explicit pictures of themselves over the internet, and then there's those go further by meeting children in person to abuse them.
Michael told Newshub that paedophiles' new playground is the very same place where kids hang out, social media.
"Every social media platform, network, gaming site, that allows interaction between people, there are child sex offenders there, no doubt."
Despite the seriousness of what's emerging online, He says social media companies are often slow, and not proactive enough when it comes to releasing data and chat-logs to authorities which may help them find offenders and rescue victims.
"Sometimes we get very limited information, and we don't get the full picture. When we go back to them, we're forced to go through that very long, drawn-out process to get further information," he says.
Michael says he has even talked to one social media company about setting up a verification process, which he believed would make the platform less attractive to offenders, to no avail.
"I just got 'no, we're not doing that'," he says.
The police's covert online team works closely alongside Customs and the Department of Internal Affairs (DIA). It too also runs into roadblocks from social media companies.
"They're not providing enough information. It creates a barrier for law enforcement," says Jolene Armadoros from the DIA digital safety team.
Armadoros says it's imperative more of these companies act faster to help children.
"Every offender we catch prevents more victims, and every victim we identify and remove from harm, whether they've been dealt with by new mechanisms with other countries is important."
Snapchat, TikTok, Kik and Google all sent Newshub lengthy statements about their efforts to address sex abuse material, but none of them directly addressed the criticism from New Zealand authorities. Tumblr didn't bother to reply. It's understood Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp all have good relationships with law enforcement here.
A CDC report supports the need for family stability
By Kiley Crossland
Individuals who experience childhood trauma have poorer health and life outcomes as adults, sometimes repeating the same unhealthy behavior they witnessed, according to a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released earlier this month. The findings underscore the importance of family stability for children.
The CDC surveyed more than 144,000 U.S. adults from 2015 to 2017, asking them about eight adverse childhood experiences, including three kinds of abuse (physical, emotional, or sexual) and exposure to intimate partner violence, mental illness, substance abuse, divorce, or incarceration in the home. More than 60 percent of adults reported experiencing at least one of the eight, with nearly 16 percent experiencing four or more.
The researchers found adverse experiences evoke a toxic stress response in the body that can have immediate and long-term physiologic and psychologic effects.
“These adverse childhood experiences can derail optimal health and development by altering gene expression, brain connectivity and function, immune system function, and organ function,” wrote the authors, adding these experiences can also “compromise development of healthy coping strategies, which can affect health behaviors, physical and mental health, life opportunities, and premature death.”
People who had been exposed to four or more of these traumatic experiences as children were more likely to struggle with alcohol and drug abuse, depression, and suicide, to have a mental health condition and heart disease, and to have lower educational attainment, employment, and income.
The report found avoiding adverse childhood experiences could potentially lower the number of high school dropouts by 1.5 million, as well as decrease coronary heart disease cases by 1.9 million cases, overweight and obesity by 2.5 million cases, and depression by 21 million cases in a single year.
“Preventing adverse childhood experiences is critical to addressing multiple public health and social challenges and to improving the lives of children, families, and communities,” the authors concluded. They listed a handful of preventative measures, including economic support for families, high-quality child care, preschool enrichment, educational programs for parents, mentoring and after school programs for youth, and enhanced primary care medical services.
But the list missed an important factor, according to Andre Van Mol, a family physician in California and the co-chairman of the Adolescent Sexuality Committee of the American College of Pediatricians. “What about encouraging biological moms and dads to stay together? That would seem to be the single most important thing,” he said, noting the greatest determinant for whether children enter the welfare system is whether they were raised by their biological mother and father.
Van Mol said he had some hesitations about the study's methodology. It was based entirely on what survey participants remembered and did not measure the severity, frequency, or duration of their experiences.
But Van Mol said the general conclusion that childhood trauma has negative consequences later in life is “entirely valid.”
While the study pushed government intervention and programs as the answer to societal distress, he held up intact and stable families as the answer. In a world full of family breakdown, Van Mol, a foster and adoptive parent, said Christians should be demonstrating what intact families look like and how redemption makes things right when they go wrong. Far from breeding condemnation and negativity toward people who have broken families, believers, he said, should be asking how does the church step in and bear one another's burdens or help father the fatherless and help single mothers?
“People are looking for reality, they are looking for things that work,” Van Mol said. “We above any members of society ought to be able to demonstrate that for them, both in word and deed.”
Southern Baptist Convention President J.D. Greear took heat last week for saying Christians can use preferred pronouns when speaking to transgender individuals.
“If a transgender person came into our church, came into my life, I think my disposition would be to refer to them by their preferred pronoun when we want to talk about gender,” Greear said in a Nov. 18 episode of his podcast Ask Me Anything. He said arguments among Christians over pronoun usage go basically along two lines: telling the truth or a generosity of spirit. “Personally, I lean a little bit toward generosity of spirit,” said Greear, a concept he defended as Biblical.
Critics saw the comments as a surrender to gender ideology.
“The pronoun issue is not merely a matter of courtesy,” columnist and author Rod Dreher wrote. “It means something substantively. When religious and cultural leaders concede this territory for the sake of being nice, they surrender more ground than they realize. They are laying down arms in the face of the ideological colonization of our collective moral imagination.”
But Greear, the senior pastor of the multi-campus Summit Church in Durham, N.C., prefaced his comment by saying gender is hardwired in human DNA and is not determined by a subjective identity: “Our identity is formed by our Creator. We are who He has declared us to be.” Greear also said he leaned heavily on two conservative thinkers who reject gender ideology: Ryan T. Andersen, a fellow at The Heritage Foundation and author of When Harry Becomes Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment, and Andrew T. Walker, a professor of ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and author of God and the Transgender Debate.
In a 2017 column, Walker explained how he would respond to transgender family members, co-workers, and church visitors, generally recommending Christian avoid using pronouns at all, but acknowledging circumstances where it might not be necessary to disagree with a person over their pronoun usage.
Happy and hopeful
Research often shows that married people report being happier than singles, but a new study goes one step further. Simply wanting to get married and build a family with another person, even if it hasn't happened yet, increases a person's happiness, according to a report released this week by the Institute for Family Studies.
Consumer behaviorist and analyst James McQuivey found people with a strong desire to pair, bond, and procreate were happier than people who didn't, regardless of their marital status.
“For now, those who are on the edge of a decision about whether to seek a lifelong partner, to commit to investing in having and raising children, and to be faithful to that commitment can ignore the hype around the ‘imminent demise' of marriage,” wrote McQuivey. “This survey's findings suggest that you will be happier if you take the plunge than if you don't. The stronger the desire, the bigger the bump.”
Sex-trafficked children are victims and deserve help — not detention
By Manka Dhingra and Tina Orwall
This past summer, the world stopped for a moment in collective horror when ultrawealthy financier and registered sex offender Jeffrey Epstein was once again indicted on a charge of child sex trafficking and sexual abuse of young girls.
His ties to the rich and powerful were splashed across tabloids, reflecting a garish political soap opera. Most of the media coverage focused largely on Epstein's connections from across the political spectrum, reaching a full-blown frenzy following his sudden death.
It was sensational. It was appalling. And there was no justice for survivors.
That moment of global outrage from last summer didn't last long enough. Epstein may be gone, but child sex trafficking remains an international epidemic. Washington is no exception.
The number of cases of child trafficking counted by the National Human Trafficking Hotline each year has more than doubled since 2012, to 2,378 — and those are just the cases that get reported. In the Seattle/King County area alone, law enforcement estimates 300-500 children are being trafficked on average.
This isn't an easy issue to tackle. We must make sure that the voices of our children are not stolen and silenced.
Youth as young as 11 are purchased online and on the streets. Too often, these are vulnerable youth who have been involved with the foster-care system or those who have experienced homelessness. In King County, 45% of trafficked youth are African-American, while many who engage in this form of exploitation are wealthy white men sitting in positions of power openly in our society — many often raising families of their own. No one would ever suspect that they are active participants in an economic system driven by the sexual exploitation of youth.
This is exactly how Epstein operated. And it's happening quietly across our state and our nation.
But in Washington, we are listening and doing something about it.
In the last decade, we have seen positive changes at the local level. Collaborative regional public information campaigns in King County between government and private industry have brought the issue out of the shadows, increasing the number of trafficking survivors who are connected to resources. King County has stopped charging children with prostitution and has more than quadrupled the number of charges brought against men trying to buy sex from minors. And our society is slowly changing the culture, moving away from harmfully labeling abused youth as “child prostitutes,” because children cannot consent to their own sexual exploitation. They can't consent to sex at all.
These are our children. They are suffering from complex trauma. They have unique challenges that need thoughtful, tailored interventions. And it's on us to help them heal. But we are nowhere near eradicating this form of slavery. Our Legislature must do more to support the victims of these crimes.
In preparation for the 2020 legislative session, we are crafting evidence-based policy reforms to the way our justice system interacts with children who are victims of these sex crimes.
First, the legislation will prohibit charging anyone under the age of 18 with the crime of prostitution. Second, it will allow law enforcement officers to take child victims into custody for their protection when circumstances present a danger to the child's safety. Finally, it will pilot two therapeutic receiving centers, one on each side of the Cascades, where law enforcement can take sexually exploited youth instead of detention. There, they can finally begin to process and recover.
If these children were victims of other sexually motivated crimes, law enforcement would consider bringing charges of statutory rape or sexual assault of a minor against their abuser. Simply because their abuse is paid for, it is the child who ends up in the criminal justice system. That is not justice.
The media spectacle centered on Epstein showed that sexual exploitation can come clothed in the outward signs of wealth and respectability, but it also gave the impression that the crimes it uncovered are rare. They aren't. Ultimately, it distracted the world from the gravest injustice: Our legal system should not be in the business of further punishing children for the horrors inflicted upon them by predatory adults.
These young people don't deserve punishment — they've experienced enough for a lifetime. They need help and resources. Getting them out of danger and providing them wraparound services is how we can begin to end the commercial sexual exploitation of children and heal our kids.
Bangladesh's Child Marriage Problem Is the World's Human Trafficking Crisis
Why fixing the second issue isn't possible without addressing the first.
By CORINNE REDFERN
First Papiya was forced into marriage at 12 years old. Then she was trafficked into sexual slavery.
Her story isn't unusual. It's echoed by tens of thousands of girls in Bangladesh, highlighting a link between child marriage and sex trafficking that should be impossible to ignore. The country with the highest rate of marriage involving girls under the age of 15 in the world, and where 150,000 to 200,000 children and young women have been trafficked into prostitution, the two forms of abuse are tightly intertwined. Traffickers prey on the vulnerable, and child marriage is what makes girls like Papiya vulnerable in the first place.
But international donors, policymakers, and even the U.S. State Department have failed to recognize this chain of exploitation, and that's slowing down efforts to address it.
Since March 2017, I have interviewed over 400 women trapped behind the walls of four brothels in Bangladesh, in an investigation that was funded by the nonprofit organization Girls Not Brides. Marriage is illegal for girls under the age of 18 (and boys under 21) in Bangladesh under the 1929 Child Marriage Restraint Act (which was updated in 2017), although the law allows girls under 18 to marry under “special circumstances”—without establishing a minimum age limit, or clarifying what those circumstances must be. Half of the girls I spoke with told me that they had been married before the age of 18 and believed they had been trafficked into sexual slavery as a direct result.
Yet for all the obvious overlap, trafficking and child marriage in Bangladesh are viewed independently of one another by the U.S. State Department —and initiatives to end both are kept separate as a result. While child marriage is largely approached by nonprofit organizations through a lens of legislative lobbying and education as prevention, counter-trafficking efforts center on rescue, rehabilitation, and prosecution. Projects that work to prevent trafficking focus on unmarried girls who are still in school.
Approximately 52 percent of girls in Bangladesh are lost in the chasm between child marriage prevention and trafficking rehabilitation: coerced into marriage as children and left without the support they need to protect themselves and safely break out.
Papiya was still trapped in a brothel in the village of Kandipara when I first met her in March 2017. She told me how she fled her in-laws' house barefoot in the middle of the night, leaving her sandals by the door so that slap of their soles on the stairs didn't wake her 22-year-old husband. As the sun rose, she spotted a rickshaw driver sleeping by the side of the road and begged him for help. He agreed with a smile, she remembered. Then he drove Papiya to a brothel and sold her for more money than he'd usually make in a month.
Approximately 52 percent of girls in Bangladesh are lost in the chasm between child marriage prevention and trafficking rehabilitation.
Now 17, Papiya has been trapped in one of Bangladesh's 11 government-registered, legal brothel villages ever since. Each one enslaves up to 3,000 women and underage girls in sexual servitude that can see them raped up to 11 or 12 times a day. Abdulla al-Mamun, the director of child protection and child rights governance at Save the Children International, says he receives reports of four or five children being trafficked to the country's largest brothel every month.
Reporting from inside these brothels never gets easier. As lines of men jostle through the entry gates and policemen patrol the brothel streets for signs of drugs or disorder, Papiya and her friends lie on their beds in windowless metal cells and self-harm in a last-ditch attempt at temporary escape.
None of the girls came here consensually. For some, it was their husbands who sold them to the brothels—each man opting to free himself from the constraining role of babysitter in a marriage in which his child wife might feasibly sleep with a teddy bear, and earning about 300,000 taka, $3,500, in the process. But the majority of the girls shared the same story: Like Papiya, they also refused to accept the life of sexual violence and abuse that they found themselves forced into in the name of marriage, and they were willing to risk their lives to escape it.
Despite such widespread evidence of child marriage as a precursor to sex trafficking, the connection is consistently overlooked.
A few were picked up by traffickers as they attempted to make their way home. Others, like Rupa, Sony, Jinuk, crossed sunken rice fields and railway lines, only to find themselves rejected by their families for the social shame that accompanies a daughter who flees a life of exploitation. Within days, alone at a bus stop or a train station, each girl was approached by a man or woman proffering help and a place to stay for the night. They were drugged and sold to the brothel before they could understand what was going on.
Despite such widespread evidence of child marriage as a precursor to sex trafficking, the connection is consistently overlooked. The Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association has been working to provide legal assistance and shelter to abused women across Bangladesh since 1979, but staff say they have found themselves struggling to make international donors understand the crossover between underage marriage and modern-day slavery. Funding for their anti-trafficking work has increased since 2017, but little support comes for cases that involve domestic violence or girls who need to flee their marriage.
“It is hard to make our donors see that these problems are all linked,” said Towhida Khondker, the director of the lawyers association. “They are all forms of violence, and one can quickly lead to another.”
One agency with the influence to effect change is the U.S. State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. Were they to take child marriage into consideration when assessing human trafficking in Bangladesh, local nonprofit organizations believe countertrafficking initiatives would likely be expanded to target the country's most defenseless demographic: underage brides.
Since 2001, the United states has purported to hold foreign—often low- and middle-income—countries accountable for failing to adequately implement countertrafficking measures set out by the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act, as established in 2000. It does so through the means of the Trafficking In Persons (TIP) Report—a controversial but vastly influential lengthy annual assessment of the response to trafficking in 187 countries, ranking them across four tiers: Tier 1 being the most successful at countertrafficking efforts, followed by Tier 2, Tier 2 Watch List, and finally Tier 3.
Countries considered not to be making sufficient efforts to combat trafficking are classified within Tier 3 and are subject to sanctions on U.S. aid to their governments, which are theoretically restricted to activities that are unrelated to human trafficking and its root causes. The U.S. State Department is then required by law to work with them to develop a more effective countertrafficking strategy going forward.
This year's report, released in June, saw 21 countries fall within Tier 3, including China, Belarus and South Sudan. For the third year in a row, Bangladesh was assigned Tier 2 Watch List status—a ranking explained in part by researchers as a repercussion of the sudden influx of over a million Rohingya refugees since 2016, and accompanied by 13 recommendations for improvement.
The State Department is clearly aware of the implications that early marriage can have on a girl's safety.
In 18 years of research and assessment, there has never been any mention of child marriage in Bangladesh's TIP profile. Yet the State Department is clearly aware of the implications that early marriage can have on a girl's safety: In this year's report, they referenced child marriage as a contributing factor to girls' vulnerability to sexual exploitation and trafficking in both Syria and Iraq.
Human rights advocates say that if the State Department viewed child marriage in Bangladesh as a form of trafficking or an enabler of trafficking, then it's possible that the country would have received different recommendations, or even a different grade. Were that the case, the incentives for the Bangladeshi government to end child marriage and develop comprehensive child protection legislation would be considerable.
“The Bangladeshi government takes the TIP report very seriously,” said Liesbeth Zonneveld, the chief of Winrock International's Counter Trafficking-In-Persons Project, adding that both Bangladesh's secretary of home Affairs and foreign secretary have already shown a demonstrable commitment to implementing the State Department's 2019 recommendations. Zonneveld doesn't know why the United States refuses to consider child marriage as a form of trafficking and to include it in the TIP report accordingly. “The U.S. says there are 25 million global victims of human trafficking, whereas most of us would include forced marriage in that and say there are 40 million,” she said.
Funding for programs that address child marriage as a root cause of trafficking would also be easier to access, said Talinay Strehl, the program manager for the Dutch anti-trafficking nonprofit Free a Girl. “Our donors respect the information included in the TIP Report,” she said. “If we were able to show them that child marriage was referenced, it would probably be easier to get financial support for prevention projects that work with victims of child marriage.” Free a Girl does not currently run any anti-trafficking projects that target girls forced into early marriage, but Strehl acknowledges that they're a high-risk demographic. “Right now, we just don't have the resources,” she said.
Until the U.S. State Department acknowledges the role of child marriage in rates of trafficking in Bangladesh, and organizations on the ground are able to incorporate the victims of child marriage into their countertrafficking efforts, those working with trafficking survivors say girls growing up across Bangladesh will remain trapped at an alarming impasse: stay with your husband and endure sexual violence in the name of marriage, or run away and risk being sold into sexual slavery without hope of escape.