Charity groups whose missions are to protect vulnerable people around the world have been complicit in the sex abuse of women and children, a major report by members of parliament in the U.K. has concluded.
The massive report, presented on Tuesday by Stephen Twigg, chairman of the International Development Committee, condemned the aid sector as a whole for failing to live up to expectations of improving safeguarding practices, despite repeated promises.
"Sexual exploitation and abuse by aid workers and peacekeepers is happening in the aid sector and it has been happening for a long time," a summary of the report said.
"It is particularly horrifying to find evidence of personnel from the aid and security sectors perpetrating these abuses rather than combating them. Reports have regularly shown this kind of sexual exploitation and abuse being perpetrated across different countries, organizations and institutions, principally in humanitarian crises.
"At its core, sexual exploitation and abuse is an abuse of power and the power imbalance is predominantly, although not exclusively, men abusing women and girls. Due to confirmed under-reporting, the exact scale is currently impossible to define, but practitioners suspect that those cases which have come to light are only the 'tip of the iceberg.'"
The report stressed that it is a "systemic" problem with dozens of organizations having been implicated and noted that "staff at every level, from guards and drivers to senior managers, were identified as having been involved."
Charity groups were accused of showing an inability to deal with allegations and complaints involving sex harassment and abuse. And there has been a tendency to punish victims and whistleblowers, rather than perpetrators.
The government report insisted that collectively, the aid sector has been aware of sex abuse by its own staff for years, but has not given it as much attention as needed.
"Repeatedly, reports of sexual exploitation and abuse by aid workers and/or peacekeepers have emerged, the sector has reacted, but then the focus has faded. This episodic response has led to the existence of safeguarding policies and procedures that have never been effectively implemented," it described.
"This has meant that where worthwhile safeguarding measures have been developed, they have never been adequately funded. A reactive, cyclical approach, driven by concern for reputational management has not, and will never, bring about meaningful change."
While there have been concerns over abuse in the aid sector for years, a Sunday Times report from February exposed multiple allegations around British charity Oxfam, with its staff members accused of offering aid money for sex with locals in earthquake-ravaged Haiti in 2011.
A number of Christian aid groups were also caught up in scandals, including World Vision, the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund, and Catholic international development charity CAFOD.
Some of the charities issued their responses to the allegations, as well as information on how they are improving safeguarding policies, in a Christian Post feature article in May, which examined the scope and the underlying reasons behind abuse in the Christian aid sector as a whole.
The members of parliament said in their latest report that zero tolerance on sexual exploitation and abuse "must be more than just words," however.
"Safeguarding policies and procedures will be utterly meaningless without a root and branch transformation of organizational culture. Leaders cannot be complacent about the extent to which any part of the organization is operating according to stated values, including the very top," the report insisted.
"We are deeply troubled by the fact that aid workers have reported a lack of trust in their employers to handle allegations of sexual harassment and abuse. We are even more concerned by reports of negative consequences for the accuser," the politicians added.
"Aid organizations need to create an environment in which those who suffer harassment and abuse are safe to report without fear of retaliation and with the confidence that their allegations will be taken seriously. Failure to do so not only leaves staff without recourse to recompense and justice, it also puts staff at risk by allowing perpetrators to remain in post."