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Child Abuse in Community Institutions and Organizations:
Improving Public and Professional Understanding


Within our communities, there are many types of institutions and organizations that have become part of our everyday lives. Prominent among these are educational and vocational institutions, religious and spiritual institutions, sporting, cultural, and recreational organizations, and special needs facilities. Our five critical dimensions are discussed below in relation to the dynamics of abuse in the above-noted groups of community institutions and organizations. We approached this task by combining the literature on familial and institutional abuse with knowledge derived from popular media reports, public lawsuits, and clinical involvement with survivors of such experiences. We consider the significance of these institutions and organizations by examining their mission and purpose, the influence and power of offenders in each setting, the extent of child involvement, and the numerous abuse and post-abuse events that affect children’s disclosure and recovery.


Parents, governments, and society almost universally accept the importance of education in the normal development of children and adolescents. Children begin school at the tender age of four or five and in most jurisdictions must continue to attend until they are at least sixteen.

The mission of educational and vocational institutions is to enable individuals to acquire knowledge and interpersonal skills to prepare them for lifelong learning so that they may realize their potential and contribute positively to their community. The importance of having an education is becoming ever more salient, and therefore the negative effects of not being able to obtain an education are even more serious. Advances in technology have created a plethora of jobs that require extensive training, and the minimum level of education required to do many pre-existing jobs has been rising steadily. This may partially explain the increase in the number of individuals receiving their high school diploma. In 1966, only 30 per cent of 18 year-olds completed high school, by 1996 this figure had risen to 77.2 per cent.[i]

If one were to examine educational and vocational institutions in terms of potential risk for institutional abuse and subsequent psychological harm, a number of features stand out. Perhaps most striking is the non-voluntary nature of school and the large amount of time children spend in school. Between the ages of five and sixteen, children spend the majority of their time at school, which poses a risk for some forms of maltreatment in this setting. The fact that children may be at the same school with the same teacher(s) or other school personnel for many years creates the potential for ongoing abuse.

The high esteem in which most educational institutions and those that work within these institutions are held can also be risk factors. As alluded to above, most cultures consider school a normal part of a child’s development. Every day, parents send their children off to school and essentially transfer their parental authority to teachers, principals, and other school personnel. We trust these individuals with our children’s lives, and most often that trust is well deserved. Our children also come to trust and admire their teachers, and other adults they come into contact with at school. Without this trust, our schools could not function properly. Children need to feel as though they are in a safe and caring environment in order to express their full potential. Teachers and administrators need the authority to make decisions and care for the children when their parents are not present.

In addition, teachers are powerful figures in children’s lives. Many children consider their teachers to be mentors and role models, particularly when the relationship extends outside of the classroom (e.g., coaching, tutoring). Teachers have a great deal of control over whether a child’s classroom experiences are positive or negative. Teachers also have control over the child’s marks. When a teacher abuses a child, the child may be reluctant to disclose for a number of reasons. Knowing that teachers are generally well respected, children may fear that they will not be believed. They also may fear that if they tell of the abuse they will lose their teacher’s favour, their marks may suffer, or their teacher will make school life difficult for them.

Many educational districts also face difficulties responding to allegations of abuse by a teacher, due in part to well-meaning safeguards that protect teachers from complaints lodged by students and parents. To by-pass such obstacles and minimize accountability, some school boards silently transferred teachers who were alleged to abuse students from school to school, resulting in further allegations. This practice further traumatizes victims by creating self-doubt and minimizing their experiences. Recently, increased awareness of incidents in which school boards failed to respond appropriately to repeat offenders has led to changes in policy and practice.[ii] Nonetheless, the professional and scientific literature on abuse by teachers is disproportionately focused on false allegations rather than the prevention and treatment of actual incidents of abuse.[iii]

When abuse does occur in an educational or vocational setting, the effects can be devastating. Children are left with feelings of shame, worthlessness, confusion, and guilt.[iv] Children may also experience Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or similar symptoms, including avoidance of school and fear associated with educators; loss of trust in or fear of adults, especially educators; loss of interest in school; denial of or refusal to discuss the traumatic event; nightmares; and excessive crying.[v] As parents, survivors may be re-traumatized when they send their children to school, fearing that they, too, will be victimized.[vi]

As a consequence of these institutions’ failure to act in cases of child abuse, the importance of an education and associated interest in learning and achievement may be compromised. Survivors are left feeling disillusioned with the system, either as a result of the abuse itself or how the abuse was handled (or mishandled), and as a result they avoid any reminders of school and school-related activities. These feelings may continue into adulthood and prevent victims and survivors from obtaining the same level of education or employment they might have otherwise obtained.


For thousands of years, religion has been a driving force in human culture. Religious beliefs have laid the foundation for traditions, laws, and even guided the development of entire civilizations. Many religious and spiritual organizations are powerful institutions based on complex belief systems and age-old doctrine; others are more loosely formed and are passed from generation to generation through folklore and tradition.

Religious and spiritual organizations and institutions serve an important function for many individuals, communities and cultures. They provide moral, ethical and spiritual guidance for both adults and children. Religious teachings provide individuals with a context for their creation, as well as an explanation for what will happen to their soul after they die. Perhaps most significant, religions are generally organized around the worship of a divine power, or God, who is believed to be all-powerful and all forgiving.

Within these organizations, religious leaders (e.g., priests, ministers, and rabbis) and other representatives of the institution wield a great deal of power. These leaders are often thought of as representatives of God, and are treated with a great deal of respect and authority. From a very young age, parents teach their children by both direct instruction and modelling to respect and obey their religious leaders. Other individuals, such as Sunday school teachers, youth leaders, and choirmasters, are also considered trustworthy by virtue of their strong affiliation with the religious organization. Parents take pride in their children’s involvement in religious activities and generally encourage participation, considering these activities the safest and most wholesome activities for their children to be partaking in.

The prominence of religious and spiritual organizations and institutions in modern societies varies greatly. In some parts of the world, religion and culture are almost synonymous. In other regions, there is much more diversity. The degree to which a child is involved with religious institutions may depend on a number of factors, including their family or ethnic background, as well as the neighbourhood, community or geographic region in which they live. If a child’s family is quite devout, that child may have daily contact with the religious organization. He or she may attend a religious school, go to daily or weekly religious ceremonies, or participate in special activities within the organization (e.g., youth group, reading at mass). If a child’s family is less involved with the religious organization, his or her contact may be limited to a weekly celebration in which the child is accompanied by his or her parents.

The influence and power of religious and spiritual organizations as well as the absolute trust that is often imparted to individuals within these organizations can have devastating consequences for children abused by religious leaders and other individuals affiliated with the organization. The perpetrator of the abuse may use his or her position within the church or the organization to obtain compliance from the child. Perpetrators may coerce victims by telling them that what they are doing is “the will of God” or that God will punish them if they do not do what they are told. Often explicit threats are not even necessary, as the child has been raised to never question the authority of his or her religious leader.[vii]

Once the abuse has occurred, the decision to disclose can be very difficult for a child. The perpetrator may have used the child’s religious beliefs to frighten him or her into silence (e.g., “you will go to hell if you tell anyone”). The child may also be aware that his or her acts were in some way sinful or against their religious beliefs, with or without threats from the perpetrator. For example, a number of Christian religions consider premarital sex and homosexual acts to be sinful. A child may not disclose abuse because he or she fears religious condemnation for participating in these forbidden, sinful acts, even when they were not consensual.[viii]

Children who disclose abuse within religious and spiritual organizations and institutions may face a number of obstacles. When children make allegations of abuse against religious leaders and other well-respected individuals associated with these organizations, they may not be believed. The perpetrators tend to be well liked and personable, and their followers will often believe them, rather than the victim, in the face of such accusations. When multiple victims come forward, they are sometimes accused of colluding against the perpetrator or the institution. The victims and their families are often rejected by their religious community or totally excommunicated. This leaves them feeling alienated, humiliated and stigmatized. The loss of community support during such a stressful time may make it difficult for the family to cope and to help their child deal with the trauma associated with both the abuse and the disclosure[ix] (presuming family members believe and support the victim).

The institution’s response to allegations of abuse by individuals within their organization can also add to the trauma experienced by victims and survivors. Priests, ministers and other religious leaders are often transferred to other communities to continue their ministry. Often victims are not given any type of apology, formal or informal. This may increase their feelings of self-blame and injustice and prevent them from obtaining closure.

Abuse by a trusted religious figure may destroy a child’s belief that the world is a safe place. Having been raised to believe that God is good, and belief in God provides protection from evil, children have difficulty reconciling how a trusted religious figure could commit such evil deeds. What once made sense no longer makes sense. What was once safe is no longer safe. This disruption of safety may cause the world to seem chaotic or unstructured. Children may try to compensate for this by reorganizing their world. This might include blaming themselves for the abuse, engaging in self-destructive or age-inappropriate behaviours to survive the abuse, or in some cases acting out their anger and rage by abusing others.[x]

When a religious leader or a member of the clergy or religious order perpetrates child abuse, it is often found that the victim or survivor’s belief in or perception of God, spiritual practices, attendance at religious services, and trust in religious representatives is severely negatively affected.[xi] Victims, particularly children, have difficulty separating the offending clergy from the religious organization or God. In some religions, religious leaders are called “father” and are a representative of God. To be violated by a priest, for example, is to be violated by God, Christ, and the church. Victims or survivors may feel that God failed to protect them, and may fear further abuse if they return to the church. This sense of betrayal can cause a crisis of faith that may destroy a victim’s comfort with and belief in important religious rituals, symbols or icons or even worse, a complete abandonment of their faith.


An area that is often overlooked when considering child abuse in institutions and organizations is abuse that occurs in sporting, recreational and cultural organizations. The reason for this may be that these organizations are rarely thought of as “institutions” despite the fact that they have existed for a long time and are an important part of many cultures. Included in this category are a wide range of teams, clubs, groups, and organizations, serving a wide range of children. They may be community-based, such as a neighbourhood hockey league, or they may be part of a larger institution, for example a school volleyball team or a church choir. These clubs or groups may themselves form a large organization, or they may be local and independent.

This category also takes into account activities and organizations that are increasingly becoming a part of children’s lives that for various reasons previously have not been considered under the rubric of institutional abuse. Technology has created a new means of accessing vulnerable children, through devices such as the Internet.[xii] Predators who once had to stalk playgrounds, schoolyards and neighbourhoods and try to entice their victims under the watchful eye of their parents now can sit at their computer and visit children’s chat rooms and cyber-clubs. They can befriend children, or even pretend to be a child, while the victim’s parents are in the very same room. Although the child may never find out that their online friend is really a pedophile, if their “cyber-club” ever did decide to meet, the results could be disastrous. Other activities that are not traditionally thought of as institutions, but which harbour the potential for child abuse include the fashion industry, modelling, and the visual arts, among others.

The mission and purpose of these organizations and institutions vary greatly. However, all seem to be focused on extracurricular, recreational or leisure activities that develop children’s knowledge, abilities, social skills and/or life skills through being part of a team, club or group. Even when an organization has a well-established mission, it may serve a different function in different children’s lives. For a less fortunate child, the support offered by an organization’s leader or the opportunities available through the local youth club may help compensate for a troubled life. For a more privileged child the same experiences may be more leisurely or recreational in nature. Similarly, for most children and youths, playing on sports teams is an enjoyable past time or extracurricular activity. However, some children aspire to participate in college or professional athletics, and sporting organizations can take on an even more powerful role in their lives.

The extent of a child’s involvement with an organization as well as the influence and power of the adults within the organization both must be considered when evaluating the vulnerability of a child within that organization. Some children’s participation in the activities associated with an organization may be minimal. They may only attend weekly meetings, games or practices. Other children may be highly involved with an organization. A child aspiring to be a professional swimmer may be involved in a number of swimming-related activities: school swim team, community swimming league, and swimming lessons. He or she may also be involved in activities geared at raising funds to travel to various tournaments and swim meets. Although ostensibly the child’s participation in these activities may be voluntary, there may be pressure from both internal and external sources (i.e., parents and coaches) to be successful.

The coaches and leaders of sporting, cultural and recreational organizations are often in a position of trust and authority. When organizations are part of a larger institution (e.g., a school or a religious organization) their leaders are often considered trustworthy by virtue of their affiliation with the institution. Principal care and responsibility for children is sometimes handed over to coaches, chaperones and leaders for extended periods of time, particularly when the activity takes place away from home, as is the case in many tournaments or travelling leagues. Children’s vulnerability may be further increased by their desire for special attention or rewards (e.g., scholarships, special privileges) or their fear of punishment or exclusion should they disobey.

When abuse does occur, the very qualities that make these types of organizations so valuable to a child’s development can be one of the major obstacles to disclosure. In many cases, the coach or leader who perpetrated the abuse is well liked by the victim’s fellow group members or team-mates. This is particularly true if the group or team has been successful. Children may fear that if they disclose the abuse they will not be believed or they will lose the respect and friendship of their peers. They may also fear that if they report the abuse they will jeopardize their dreams, either because they feel they need the special treatment or training they have been receiving, or because they fear the consequences of disclosure. This may cause children to remain silent and tolerate the abuse much longer than they would in other situations, in a sense accommodating the abuse.[xiii]

When a child does decide to report abuse that occurred in these types of organizations, the outcome may not be favourable. Victims may find themselves ostracized by fellow team-mates or group members, thus losing their sense of team identity at an already difficult time. If the perpetrator was an important figure in the community or if the organization was significant to the community, the victim may be shocked by the rallying of support for the perpetrator. The victim may be labelled a whistle blower or a liar and as a result be further victimized. Even when the victim is acknowledged, the organizational response may be one of minimization, with the perpetrator simply being transferred or given a mere “slap on the wrist.”

Sporting, cultural and recreational organizations are meant to be enjoyable activities. Besides school, they are one of the major means by which children can broaden their horizons and develop a sense of self-esteem. When abuse occurs within these organizations, a child’s confidence, self-esteem and ability to trust is eroded.[xiv] The trauma of the abuse may lead to a decline in the child’s performance (both within and outside of the organization), which subsequently may interfere with his or her ability to achieve his or her future goals. The child may also experience a loss of interest in and pleasure from activities that were once very important in his or her life. Even children who were not abused but who witnessed the abuse may be adversely affected. They may be frightened into compliance or they may come to resent the special attention that the victim receives.


In every community there are organizations that address special needs of children and youth. The types of services offered by these organizations are quite diverse and depend on the needs of the children being helped. Some try to compensate for disadvantages, lack of opportunity, family problems, or missing elements in a child’s life (e.g., providing role models and support for children with a variety of special needs). State and provincial child protective and social service organizations provide assistance for children in need of care and protection. Other special needs organizations address specific problems or disabilities. Mental health services assist children with emotional, psychological, psychiatric, or behavioural problems. Correctional services provide programs for children who have become involved with the legal system. There are also organizations and institutions, often residential, which help children with physical and developmental disabilities.

Considering the dynamics of child abuse within special needs organization presents a unique challenge because of the wide range of services offered by each of these institutions. Many of these organizations provide everything from emergency care, crisis intervention, or short-term care, all the way up to long-term residential placements. Each of these types or levels of care is associated with unique risk factors for abuse. For example, the risk factors for a child receiving outpatient treatment at a mental health clinic will be very different from a child who is in a group home for children with behaviour problems. Similarly, a youth who is in a secure custody detention centre may be much more vulnerable to abuse than a youth who is on probation, although both are involved with correctional services.

Children’s involvement with special needs organizations frequently is non-voluntary and sometimes even their parents have little control over their well being. Children often come to the attention of social services because of some type of family breakdown. Parental rights may be temporarily or even permanently terminated. The child then becomes the responsibility of social services. Although it may be in the best interest of the child to be removed from his or her family, in the event that abuse occurs within the social services organization, without the support of his or her family the child may not know where to turn.

In other cases, the very reason that children come to the attention of special needs organizations (i.e., their “special needs”) may make them more vulnerable to abuse, make it more difficult for them to report abuse that has occurred, or damage their credibility when they do disclose abuse. For example, research has shown that children who are deaf or hard of hearing are at an increased risk of sexual abuse, even more so than children with other disabilities, likely as a result of their difficulty understanding or verbalizing episodes of abuse.[xv] Other disadvantages which bring children to the attention of special needs organizations, such as family problems or past abuse, may make children more vulnerable to abuse, and may also make it difficult for them to report abuse. Children with behaviour problems or mental health problems may be reluctant to disclose abuse for fear that they will not be believed. Staff within correctional facilities or mental health facilities may feel that children within these settings are “safer” targets because if they do disclose they are less likely to be believed because of their past behaviour. The very behaviour problems that led to their institutional care may end up undermining their credibility when they disclose abuse.

As we have seen in the other non-familial institutions and organizations discussed previously, adults often have considerable control over children by virtue of their position within special needs organizations. Many of them are professionals or paraprofessionals, such as doctors, psychologists, social workers, childcare workers and counsellors, who are trusted by parents, children, and the community in general. When abuse does occur within a special needs organization, victims face similar obstacles to disclosure, such as fear that they will not be taken seriously or believed, particularly for those with a history of mental health or behaviour problems.[xvi] If they report the abuse but are not believed, they may face repercussions from both the perpetrator and other staff within the institution. Children may also choose not to disclose the abuse for fear that the consequences of disclosing will be worse than enduring the abuse. For example, a child who has been placed in multiple foster homes may fear that if he or she discloses abuse, the next placement will be a group home or residential facility. As was the case with other types of non-familial abuse, the effects of abuse occurring in special needs facilities can be institution specific, such as a sense of isolation and general mistrust of “helping” institutions and organizations. This problem compounds the difficulty in accessing therapy and support, as all counsellors may be seen as untrustworthy and potentially abusive.


i. Ministry of Education. Quick Facts 1998-99. [Online]. Available at :

ii. Restoring Dignity, supra note 1.

iii. Anderson, E. M., & Levine, M. (1999). Concerns about allegations of child sexual abuse against teachers and the teaching environment. Child Abuse & Neglect, 23, 823-843.

iv. Dolmage, W. R. (1995). Accusations of teacher sexual abuse of students in Ontario schools: Some preliminary findings. Alberta Journal of Educational Research, Vol 41, 127-144.

v. Hyman, I. A., Zelikoff, W., & Clarke, J. (1988). Psychological and physical abuse in the schools: A paradigm for understanding post-traumatic stress disorder in children and youth. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 1, 243-267.

vi. Protecting our Students, supra note 2.

vii. Kennedy, M. (2000). Christianity and child sexual abuse the survivor's voice leading to change. Child Abuse Review, 9, 124-141.

viii. Rossetti, S. J. (1995). The impact of child sexual abuse on attitudes toward God and the Catholic Church. Child Abuse and Neglect, Vol 19, 1469-1481.

ix. Farrell, D. P. & Taylor, M. (2000). Silenced by God--an examination of unique characteristics
within sexual abuse by clergy. Counselling Psychology Review, Vol 15, 22-31.

x. Fater, K. & Mullaney, J. A. (2000). The lived experience of adult male survivors who allege childhood sexual abuse by clergy. Issues in Mental Health Nursing, Vol 21, 281-295.

xi. De Fuentes, N. (1999). Hear our cries: Victim-survivors of clergy sexual misconduct. In T. Plante (Ed.), Bless me father for I have sinned (pp. 135-170). New York, NY: Praeger.

xii. McCabe, K. A. (2000). Child pornography and the Internet. Social Science Computer Review, 18, 73-76.

xiii. Bowker, L. H. (1998). The coaching abuse of teenage girls: A betrayal of innocence and trust. In L. H. Bowker (Ed), Masculinities and violence (pp. 111-124). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

xiv. McCabe (2000), supra note 95.

xv. Sullivan, P. M. & Knutson, J. F. (1998). Maltreatment and behavioural characteristics of youth who are deaf and hard -of-hearing. Sexuality and Disability, Vol 16, 295-319.

xvi. Howlin, P. & Clements, J. (1995). Is it possible to assess the impact of abuse on children with pervasive developmental disorders? Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, Vol 25, 337- 354.

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