Sex Abuse in Humanitarian Groups, Christian Ministries: Who Is Left to Trust?

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(Photo: AP Images / Alexandre Meneghini)In this photo taken May 31, 2010, people sit in the Corail-Cesselesse camp for earthquake displaced people on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

In the wake of reports that Christian humanitarian ministries have been caught up in a wide net of sexual abuse allegations, many questions have emerged over who can be trusted.

While abuse of any kind is denounced, it hits a particular nerve when the people who have pledged to protect and help those in the most vulnerable situations are the abusers themselves.

Boz Tchividjian, the grandson of the late evangelist Billy Graham and who has devoted his career to exposing and confronting sexual abuse in the Christian environment, said human nature "is a sinful nature."

"It doesn't matter what ministry you're in," he told The Christian Post.

Tchividjian has served as a former child abuse chief prosecutor and is the founder and executive director of GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment). GRACE has built its credentials as a leading nonprofit hired to independently investigate several cases of sexual abuse in Christian ministries. 

Sex abuse in the humanitarian sector is far from a new phenomenon, but a Sunday Times report in February exposed the depth and magnitude of the ongoing problem concerning various secular and Christian aid groups.

Some of the most notable revelations concerned British charity Oxfam, which was hit by allegations that its staff members offered aid or money for sex with prostitutes in earthquake-ravaged Haiti in 2011.

The charity later admitted that it was dealing with 87 incidents of sexual harassment or abuse in the past year, with its deputy chief executive, Penny Lawrence, resigning in the wake of the scandal.

Other big groups, such as Save the Children, admitted to dealing with 31 cases of sex abuse in total. The International Committee of the Red Cross said that more than 20 of its employees have left the organization over sexual misconduct since 2015. Plan International U.K. owned up to six cases of sexual abuse and exploitation of children, dating back to July 2016.

The United Nations has also been condemned by aid workers who say that men delivering humanitarian aid on behalf of the organization in Syria have routinely demanded sexual acts from women and girls. And the abuse has been ignored for years. 

(Photo: Reuters/Stringer)Residents queue up to receive humanitarian aid at the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, in Damascus March 11, 2015. The Palestinian Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, which is under siege by Syrian government forces fighting rebels, has received its first relief supplies since the beginning of December. The aid was delivered by the United Nations Relief and Works Organization UNRWA on March 5.

British regulator the Charity Commission revealed that charities report over 1,000 sexual abuse incidents every year. Priti Patel, the former international development secretary, warned that "predatory pedophiles" have been exploiting the entire sector.

Faith-based organizations were also caught up in a web of accusations, including Christian Aid, which admitted to two incidents of sexual misconduct in the past year. Still, the charity insisted in a statement that "neither individual had acted criminally, nor had their misconduct been directed toward anyone who is supported by Christian Aid."

World Vision, the global evangelical aid group that supports children, pushed back against a Daily Mail article that reported that in 2010, its employees were accused of forcing desperate Haitians to have sex with them or pay money for aid, similar to Oxfam.

World Vision insisted that individuals who were involved in the sexual exploitation were "community volunteers and cash-for-work beneficiaries themselves," rather than paid employees.

According to a Reuters report in February, World Vision confirmed that it faced 10 incidents in 2016 involving either sexual exploitation or abuse of a child in its activities.

Smaller Christian groups were also affected by the scandal, with the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund revealing that it dealt with two cases of alleged sexual abuse of children. It later insisted that it had handled the issue "decisively" and had followed strong safeguarding procedures.

Catholic international development charity CAFOD separately revealed that it fired one employee accused of sexual misconduct, also concerned with aid delivered to Haiti following the 2010 earthquake.

CAFOD noted that it reviewed two other historical cases of sexual misconduct allegations against its staff. An investigation found no evidence against the first employee, but led to the dismissal of the second one.

Tchividjian, who is a professor of law at Liberty University School of Law, told CP that he is "disturbed" but not surprised at the recent sex abuse revelations in the humanitarian sector.

"This type of behavior seems to have no boundaries. Whether it's a Christian organization, or secular organization, it doesn't seem to make a big difference," he said.

He explained that one of the main issues is that people in power are sometimes prone to taking advantage of others and making themselves look better.

Such people "preach the Gospel about God sacrificing Himself" for the world, and yet they "sacrifice the victims in order to protect themselves," which he said is the very opposite of what the faith teaches.

"Unfortunately, we've created a Christian culture where we elevate people in the power of authority," he warned, which becomes a "very seductive" temptation that is often the cause of abuse.

He argued that if someone is looking for power, then "it's a sign that [that person] should not be in that position."

Christians, he said, need to gain a "better grasp of what does the Gospel mean" and understand the importance of humility.

"One of the things I often appreciated about my grandfather, Billy Graham, is his humility," he added, noting that the evangelist, who died at the age of 99 in February, did not revel in any authority he was given by others. 

Should I Keep Supporting Humanitarian Groups?

For many people, it is difficult to discern who to trust when looking at a complex web of accusations and denials, especially when they only have access to surface-level information about aid groups.

Questions people struggle with are: Should I stop donating money to a group that has seen workers accused of sexual abuse? Or is it unfair to retract support from an entire organization over individual cases?

Tchividjian said that a very important factor to consider when dealing with such questions is the role that leadership plays.

"I think that there are some organizations, and we've already begun to see this, where there is a complicit nature in the leadership. They are put on notice on suspicions of abuse, and they choose to do little, if anything, to address it."

He said that if people can conclude that there has been complicity in leadership levels, then "there should be consequences," one of which could be ending financial support.

Tchividjian warned that some Christian groups, even if abuse is uncovered, will try to reason that the work they do is so important that it balances out all the wrong.

"Quite often I see Christian ministries put the balance on a scale and say, 'Well, look at all the good [we do] throughout the world.'"

He argued that no matter how much "good" a ministry appears to otherwise be doing, such an attitude does not advance the Gospel.

"I think that that is a very self-centered perspective because we think that God is dependable upon us. Quite frankly, in some of these situations, ministries just need to be shut down," he asserted.

"God will continue carrying out His work — God doesn't need us, and we have to realize that from day one."

Tchividjian argued that people need to "do their homework" on charity groups before deciding who to give their money to.

"No organization is perfect, I don't think we ever expect perfection. But the question is, are there organizations where leadership has participated in using their authority and power and position to abuse other people, and how did they handle it when leadership learned about this? Did leadership turn the other way, or did leadership address it directly?"

He talked about the importance of an independent investigation, which is what GRACE provides, and pointed out that there is a big difference between internal and independent investigations. The latter is more effective in uncovering abuse, he said, because a ministry would not have control of the findings.

What should be a cause of great concern, he contended, is when it's discovered that leadership has "done nothing or little of anything to address these types of abuses, or rationalizes them or minimizes them."

With all the focus on the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements exposing sex abuse throughout society, and the recent spotlight on abuse in the humanitarian sector, people are becoming empowered and realizing that they can have a voice, he noted, even if speaking out against powerful institutions is not any easier.

"In the past, many victims, particularly in Christian organizations, felt like they didn't have a voice and couldn't step forward. Often times, many victims blamed themselves, they lived under a lot of shame," he said, adding that they ended up "suffering in silence."

"I think that for the first time in a long time, we're seeing victims who realize that they are not alone, that they're not isolated, and that they have a voice; that they can come together and speak as a choir of voices, rather than as a voice alone."

The more people step forward, the more it encourages others to also make that step and share their stories, with victims realizing they need not be ashamed, he added.

"I think at the end of the day, people are seeing that it's such a good thing, it breaks out truth, it brings out transparency and healing," he said.

But do empowered voices make it any harder for potential predators to think twice about committing abuse? That would be a hope too far, Tchividjian suggested.

"I think that most people who engage in abusive behavior, sexual abusive behavior, they don't ever anticipate being caught," he said.

"I'm not sure if it will stop somebody. I think that people abuse regardless" of whether there is close attention on these matters, he noted.

If anything, perpetrators "become more secretive, more creative" in the way they set up abuse, he warned.

What has changed, however, is that an environment for truth to come out is finally being created, he said.

Tchividjian anticipates that it will encourage "more people to step forward" and bring these issues "to light in a greater way than ever before."

The many expositions of sex abuse have, meanwhile, highlighted the need for more monitoring to hold humanitarian groups accountable.

CP reached out to one such group, CHS Alliance, which is promoting its Core Humanitarian Standard, a voluntary code relating to the essential elements of principled, accountable and quality humanitarian action.

As the Alliance also explains on its website, "sexual exploitation and abuse by aid workers is unacceptable."

"It means that people who are already vulnerable through conflict or disaster are hurt by those who are supposed to be there to help them. It is terrible that the actions of a few undermine the excellent work of the humanitarian community as a whole," it says.

A CHS Alliance representative said that three of its set of nine commitments to communities and people affected by crisis are most relevant to the ongoing sex abuse revelations, which the organization is urging humanitarian groups to apply.

The commitments are namely:

"Commitment 3: Communities and people affected by crisis are not negatively affected and are more prepared, resilient and less at-risk as a result of humanitarian action;

"Commitment 5: Communities and people affected by crisis have access to safe and responsive mechanisms to handle complaints.

"Commitment 8: Communities and people affected by crisis receive the assistance they require from competent and well-managed staff and volunteers."

How the Accused Groups Are Moving Forward

CP reached out to five of the accused groups to ask how donors have responded, how they are addressing the accusations and concerns, and what measures they are taking to prevent future abuse.

International Committee of the Red Cross responded to CP's questions in full.

CP: What kind of response have you received from supporters in light of the sexual abuse reports that emerged in February?

ICRC: After the issue of sexual abuse in the aid sector came to light, the ICRC shared information with its main donors on the different safeguards and preventive measures the organization has implemented over the last decade.

The ICRC also acknowledged in a public statement on addressing and preventing staff sexual misconduct that more needs to be done to improve these safeguards. Donors have told us they appreciate our decision to be transparent concerning sexual misconduct situations.

CP: How should supporters move forward in light of these allegations?

ICRC: We encourage the donor community to maintain pressure on the humanitarian sector to make sure adequate measures are in place to prevent and address cases of sexual exploitation and abuse. Any sector whose mission is to respond to the needs of vulnerable people must be able to demonstrate that integrity and principled conduct are the drivers of the way staff conduct themselves.

Equally, it's important to acknowledge that the vast majority of staff and volunteers in the humanitarian sector are committed to helping the most vulnerable in ethical and appropriate ways. Humanitarian organizations need to be able to count on the support of the donor community to continue to assist and protect those in need.

CP: How would you assure your supporters that the issues are being resolved?

ICRC: In 2016, we decided to bring greater structure to the ICRC's engagement on the Code of Conduct, including sexual misconduct.

The building of a compliance organization forms the basis for the ICRC's assurance to its supporters that we have worked in a systematic way to address sexual misconduct considering the importance of clarity on roles, responsibilities, oversight and accountability in ensuring sustainable change.

Our Global Compliance Office is part of the ICRC's Director General's Office and performs its duties independently from those responsible for or involved in operational activities. It manages the oversight of investigations and inquiries and is explicitly mandated to undertake investigations of potential higher-risk misconduct, such as sexual misconduct, by ICRC employees and any entity or person having a contractual link with the ICRC.

CP: What steps are being taken to strengthen safeguarding measures to prevent abuse in the future?

ICRC: We consider today's reality an important opportunity for us to further drive sustainable change to prevent sexual misconduct.

One of the activity areas that we feel must be improved concerns the standards to be applied to the vetting and referencing of employees. Various ideas to this effect are being discussed now in the humanitarian sector. It is critical to our humanitarian mission and mandate to make sure that we recruit the right people and set the highest possible standards of integrity for the people that we employ.

A safe working environment reinforces the trust that we need from all stakeholders (colleagues, beneficiaries, donors and the public) in order to operate efficiently.

For these reasons, we believe that it is critical, as the first prevention measure, to improve the screening of individuals who want to work for the ICRC. In doing so, we must be in a position to gather all the information that we need with regard to integrity history, in particular past issues of sexual misconduct, while making sure that we do not violate privacy and data protection rights of individuals.

We want to continue to shape an organizational culture of integrity in which we all feel responsible for addressing sexual misconduct. This year, we will work on various prevention activities. To support us in our increased efforts, we have increased the number of staff members dedicated to compliance work in our organization, at HQ, regional and field level.

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(Photo: World Vision)

World Vision released the following statement to CP:

"We have a zero-tolerance policy of incidents of violence against children and others committed by our staff or volunteers. We have extensive policies and protocols in place to safeguard children and communities against sexual exploitation and abuse.

"Like other aid agencies, there are lessons coming out of the past few months that we as an organization are committed to taking on board and integrating into discussions with our partners in delivering aid to the world's most vulnerable children. We continue to review our policies, procedures and practices, to see where they can be strengthened or improved.

"As always, we encourage anyone who has concerns, either about conduct of World Vision employees or of any abuse of children and other vulnerable groups, to use the Whistleblower Hotline World Vision has had for nearly 10 years (Report Online http://worldvision.ethicspoint.com or call collect +1-503-726-3990)."

Oxfam responded with a statement also made available on its website:

"We completely condemn any form of abuse against the people we work to protect and support. We have a zero-tolerance approach to sexual misconduct and will not stand for any kind of harassment of staff, partners, volunteers or those we serve.

"The behavior of some staff employed by Oxfam Great Britain in Haiti in 2011 and Chad in 2006 was totally unacceptable, contrary to our values and the high standards we expect of our staff.

"It is our absolute priority to ensure that our staff and volunteers in our offices, shops and overseas programs are safe and valued in their workplace.

"We have several safeguarding policies in operation to prevent harassment and abuse, including a prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse policy. Staff are encouraged to raise any concerns they may have without reprisal and we have a robust whistleblowing policy in place.

"We have recently completed consultation with Volunteer Now as part of the development and implementation of a robust Safeguarding Policy to include both children/young people and Adults at Risk. This is designed to support and protect both staff and volunteers. It includes training for designated safeguarding roles, which are already in place in the organization.

"We also remain committed to earning and maintaining the trust of our supporters."

The Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund provided CP with a statement from SCIAF Director Alistair Dutton that was released in February:

"I'm sure like me, and everyone at SCIAF, you will have been dismayed by the deplorable stories from Haiti. I want to reassure you that these media stories have no connection to SCIAF.

"While we all feel deeply betrayed by the unacceptable actions of a tiny minority, these stories shouldn't detract from the incredible life-saving humanitarian work that has been done since the earthquake in 2010.

"As Director I personally oversee all child protection and safeguarding matters in SCIAF and work closely with senior staff to ensure that any cases are sensitively and professionally investigated. We have thorough safeguarding policies and procedures in place which meet national and international standards. All staff and volunteers who work with children are trained in our policies and procedures, and commit to adhere to them.

"All staff and relevant volunteers receive child protection training annually, which is compulsory. We also have an internal safeguarding committee which includes the Director and senior managers, which meets regularly to ensure policies and procedures are being implemented. In over 50 years we have had two cases reported to us relating to sexual misconduct and both were dealt with decisively.

"Sexual violence and child abuse are first and foremost a personal tragedy for the people who have been harmed. In the event of any allegations, our first concern will always be to care for their emotional, physical, psychological and social well-being.

"As soon as allegations are brought to our attention, we will ensure that the accused is removed from any opportunity to repeat the alleged offence. Such abuses of power are also criminal offences and must be dealt with according to the law where the incident happens. Where allegations are made, SCIAF will co-operate fully with the police and legal bodies to ensure that they are fully investigated, and prosecuted if charges can be brought.

"We will also conduct a thorough internal investigation to establish what happened and determine how the case should be handled in accordance with our policies and procedures. We have a whistle blowing policy and frequently review our policies and procedures."

Save the Children provided a statement it released in March:

"Since 2015 significant progress has been made in workplace culture at Save the Children UK. This includes but is not limited to every member of staff receiving mandatory training in 'respect in the workplace' and the establishment of an 'integrity hotline' which has been set up to enable staff to report confidentially any complaints about the behaviour of colleagues. Senior leadership workshops have taken place specifically addressing standards of good, acceptable behaviour and culture in the workplace, devised and delivered by independent advisers.

"All new recruits to Save the Children UK now receive coaching and advice on the values of the organisation and how these are delivered in the work place.

"The recommendations and progress made in the last 24 months will form the basis of a review which by Dr. Suzanne Shale, an international expert in organisational ethics, which was recently announced. The review has been commissioned in response to recent concerns in the sector.

"Save The Children UK has asked Dr. Shale to lead a fully independent team in a review of its workplace culture."

 

 

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