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One pandemic doesn’t erase another

Victor Sande-Aneiros

CRIN - Child Rights International Network

With the emergence and spread of Covid-19 throughout the year there was a risk that any advancements previously made towards securing justice for survivors of childhood sexual abuse in religious institutions would be halted, delayed, or worse, forgotten about. But if we take a look around the world, things have panned out a bit differently.

In February, senators in Mexico proposed creating an independent commission to investigate child sexual abuse in the country’s Catholic Church. In May, Poland’s filmmaking duo, the Sekielski brothers, released a new documentary about clergy abuse in their country, which has already been viewed more than 7.5 million times. In August in Scotland, a bill to establish a financial redress scheme for survivors of historical child abuse in care was introduced in Parliament. And by September, New Zealand’s royal commission into abuse in state and religious institutions had held over 500 private sessions with abuse survivors, with around 1,700 more registered to speak.

It wasn’t all good news for survivors, however, most notably the news of Cardinal Pell’s acquittal in April. What we’re seeing nonetheless is that the issue hasn’t dropped from the public and political agenda because of Covid-19, and neither is there any excuse for it.

How can we help?

CRIN’s own approach to these developments isn’t to start from scratch by ourselves, but to help build upon the work that abuse survivors have already been doing for decades. As an international organisation, CRIN’s strength lies in appreciating the broader, cross-regional picture: how countries can follow one another’s reforms, how survivors’ groups can help to encourage survivors in other countries to mobilise and how ally organisations like CRIN can help.

In November 2019 we published new research on child sexual abuse in Latin America’s Catholic Church which showed that there were cases in every country. It was the first regional picture of the issue and it made us ask ‘what next?’ as we didn’t want the report to then sit on a shelf gathering dust. Influencing the next steps are the experiences of Latin America and abroad. Perhaps most importantly, we’ve learnt that for the visibility of the issue to increase and for survivors to get closer to achieving justice, a country needs to have a national survivor-led network, political allies in government and an independent national inquiry, as these three elements are key to setting the groundwork for reform and redress.

In Latin America, however, we’re aware of only three countries where survivors of clergy abuse have mobilised collectively: Argentina, Chile and Mexico. That such few survivor-led networks exist is a glaring omission, as the support and advice that they provide is immeasurable for those who’ve suffered abuse, while the campaigning and awareness-raising work that they do is key to pushing the issue into the political arena where reforms are passed. For these reasons we think that every country in Latin America should have a survivor-led network. This is because, around the world, it’s always been survivors’ networks - whether functioning as formal organisations or informal support groups - that have led the way in mobilising other survivors and making collective demands for truth, justice and redress. Without them, these demands fall on deaf ears. And history shows us that it’s always harder to ignore a big group than a single voice.

Leveraging what’s at our disposal

Now back to the question of ‘what next?’, and given the current public health situation, what can we do despite the Covid-19 pandemic?

Most importantly, both survivors’ and ally organisations must continue our campaigning because we know that abuse gets worse when oversight decreases. In the midst of a global pandemic we know, for instance, that many people are facing a greater risk of violence, including children, both online and offline, because of increased isolation from protective support networks such as teachers, friends or extended family. And when calls for help fall silent, it only bolsters impunity and the repetition of abuse.

The need to continue campaigning and raising awareness is especially timely in Latin America, a region which has already seen impressive reforms in recent years and signals the potential for more. At least five countries (Nicaragua, El Salvador, Peru, Ecuador and Chile) have abolished the statute of limitations on childhood sexual abuse, with a similar proposal in Argentina. Calls for national inquiries on clergy abuse have so far been made in Chile and Mexico, with Ecuador and Peru having already conducted smaller cross-party inquiries into institutional child sexual abuse generally. Meanwhile international legal advocacy is currently being considered by survivors in several countries. These developments are a long time coming and it’s important to maintain this momentum.

The way we see it is that now, more than ever, we must get better connected. Despite the downside of physical distancing, the situation also presents an opportunity to optimise communication among ourselves, as online also means without borders, which itself is a boundless opportunity to grow the network of activism within and across countries. This potential shouldn’t be underestimated, as there’s strength not only in numbers but also in diverse skills, perspectives and experiences. Just because we can’t meet in person doesn’t mean the network of activists and allies can’t grow to become an entire movement for truth, justice and abuse prevention. It’s this pursuit that will define our next steps.

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