Still from the film Spotlight

I have watched Spotlight—the acclaimed movie about the Boston Globe’s investigation into the systematic sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy—three times in the past few weeks. Oddly, the experience of watching this disturbing film has been a kind of therapy for me, reminding me of the cost of silence, the importance of standing up for children, and the compounded damage of inaction.

I am the director of a foundation in India for children with disabilities. According to a report released in January, children with special needs are three times more likely than other children to be abused. And this is something our foundation has always been vigilant about. In a country where beatings and other forms of corporal and verbal punishment are common and culturally acceptable, our organization has established a reputation for being different. Violence of any kind is expressly forbidden in all our centers, and all our staff know that we have a zero-tolerance policy for abuse.

But as strict as I thought we were, when we reviewed our child-protection policy a year ago with a consultant who is an expert in the field, we found it was full of gaps. Training was sketchy, reporting procedures were poorly understood, and documentation was weak. We began a long and exhaustive process of improving the policy, closing its gaps, and making it something our staff could adapt in situations that can’t be anticipated.

The immediate result was that child-protection cases suddenly began to emerge from all directions. It was like an epidemic. Were we conjuring them up with our new hyperawareness, or had this abuse always been happening and we just hadn’t noticed? Either way, it was unsettling. We discovered that one boy was being exposed to pornography and possibly photographed for the same. We learned of a girl who was probably being raped. Another child told us he was beaten regularly. A young man with an intellectual impairment had been forced to marry a young woman who was also impaired. Because he was incapable of consummating the marriage, his father had taken on that task, and there was now a baby.

All these things were happening in our students’ homes, not in our centers. Given the paucity of social services in India, it was all but impossible for us to respond effectively for the protection of the children involved. When we learned about the forced marriage and the repeated rape of the young woman, for example, we called the police. But while the cop who took the report was sympathetic, he said he was powerless to act. By law, both the young man and the young woman were adults; unless one of them made a formal complaint, there were no grounds to investigate. In the other instances, we were legally required to inform the police, but we did so knowing not only that nothing would be done, but that nothing could be done. India has no effective system in place to protect a child who is being abused by a member of his or her own family. In cases where the violence is too extreme to be ignored, the child ends up being put in the same institutional care as juvenile delinquents. So a six-year-old child with an intellectual impairment who has been raped by her own father could be kept in a locked ward with teenagers arrested for assault, drug use, and armed robbery.

Wherever there is evidence of abuse, we have to involve the police, but it is a terrible feeling to know that the authorities will almost certainly subject the children we are trying to protect to dangers far worse than the ones they already face. It is frightening to realize that there is no safety net for these children except us.

Because we aren’t a system. Our foundation has no residential center in which to house children in distress. We have neither standing, nor authority, nor backup. We are just a few unimportant people who must, in many instances, work outside the law to protect children from the very system whose job it is to protect children. So we inform the police when we must, but then we work with a family to oust an uncle who is molesting their impaired child. We teach parents that there are better ways to manage their child’s difficult behavior than by beating them. One child at a time, we make things a little better.

The charges can’t be true. These are people we know, people who have worked with us for years.

But when, out of the blue, allegations were made against members of our own staff, things got complicated. The foundation is like a family. Many of our staff have never worked anywhere else. They have been with us for more than twenty years, and they identify with the community we have become in much the same way they identify with their family or their religion. The senior management feels the same way about them.

So when two of our students (both teenagers) made accusations against two of our teachers, we found it hard to believe them. It seemed so unlikely, so out of character for both of the accused teachers. Still, we investigated both claims thoroughly.

The incident reports were scrutinized carefully and detailed reconstructions were created to be sure of time, place and people present. A psychologist and a case worker the students trusted interviewed each of the students making the charges; in one of the two cases, three of the student’s friends corroborated the story but further investigations showed that at least two of them could not actually have been present when the incident took place and the third was doubtful.

Relevant staff were interviewed meticulously and all the reports were compiled for review by an outside adviser with over thirty years of experience in the UK. Yet even as we were doing all the right things, I was thinking to myself, “The charges can’t be true. These are people we know, people who have worked with us for years.” It was when I actually considered transferring them to different centers that alarm bells began ringing in my head. Why did this sound so familiar?

It’s easy to assume that bishops who transferred priests accused of abuse from one parish to another were doing it to preserve their power bases or to avoid scandal. But it’s also possible that they were like me: aghast at the accusations and unable to square them with people they knew and loved.

In the end, after lengthy discussions with our adviser, I decided to ask both of the accused teachers to resign. There was no hard evidence (all we had were the students’ unsubstantiated accusations), but the doubt created made it impossible for us to allow them to continue working at the foundation. Giving them non-child-related positions was impossible for us financially and unacceptable for them professionally.

I know this is difficult to square with the principle “innocent until proven guilty,” and I know that many will say I acted as if I were myself the police. It is, and I did. My first job is to make sure our children are safe. One of those children is my own, and I take that task more seriously than just a line item in a job description. If there’s a doubt, I’ll help you find another job (I did that for both our former staff), but I won’t compromise on our kids’ safety.

I have gone back over my decision more times than I can count.

And the police? The last time I tried to involve the police was about a burglary in one of our centers. After their investigation at the scene of the crime, the cops who responded told our watchman and our gardener to come to the police station that evening for “a few more questions.” When I said I would be coming too, they took me aside and said urgently: “Madame? Don’t you want us to beat them up?” So unless there is a definite reason to involve the police—and in neither of these cases was there clear evidence of criminal wrongdoing—we prefer not to.

I have gone back over my decision more times than I can count. While individual staff members are important, even crucial, it is the foundation as a whole that we have to consider, and the welfare and safety of the children that is our prime responsibility. If there are doubts, that fundamental principle has to be what guides us. Research tells us that children seldom lie about abuse. And while children with intellectual impairments are easier to take advantage of, they are also harder to manipulate. It would be difficult for an interested party to put them up to making a false accusation. So, hard as it was for me to believe that two people I knew well and trusted could be guilty as charged, in the end I gave the children the benefit of the doubt.

In the weeks following our employees’ departures, I saw the impact on their lives. Their marriages suffered and they had trouble paying their bills. One of them recovered quickly enough, but the other returned to our office almost every day, begging to be taken back. Our Child Protection Officer and I second-guessed our decision constantly, haunted by the fear that we had been mistaken, that we had damaged two people’s lives for no reason.

Spotlight was helpful here—it reminded us of the road not taken. Like us, church officials put the institution before individuals; unlike us, they defined that institution by its most powerful members. For them, the church meant the clergy, and in their desire to protect priests, they ended up protecting predators. In such terrible circumstances, pain is inevitable; now or later, there will be consequences. Adults, especially if innocent—and especially in India where there are no offenders’ registers—can rebuild their lives. Children can be harmed irreparably.

Published in the May 18, 2018 issue: View Contents

Jo McGowan, a longtime contributor to Commonweal, writes from Dehradun, India.

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