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Child sex abuse in Europe

The abuse scandal in the Catholic Church has led to many training concepts, guidelines and codes of conduct. Adult educators and other professionals are needed to do the job.

Learning & teaching

Education to stop child sexual abuse

Authors: Michael Sommer Published:

The abuse scandal in the Catholic Church has led to many training concepts, guidelines and codes of conduct. Adult educators and other professionals are needed to do the job.

Child sexual abuse continues to be a widespread phenomenon in Europe despite a European convention expressly requiring all countries to be effective in protecting children. Adult education is now playing an increasingly important role in prevention work.

18 million children are estimated to be affected by sexual abuse in Europe, according to a current European report on child maltreatment.

Whether in the family, care facilities, sports, at leisure or in school, about 9,6 percent of all children are affected by attacks (13.4% in girls and 5.7% in boys), based on community surveys from Europe.

In recent years the phenomenon has received much publicity. This is especially true in cases where the perpetrator was a Catholic priest.

In some European countries, such as Germany or Ireland, studies and reports have shed some light on this dark corner of the church.

Abuse scandal a catalyst for prevention efforts

These revelations not only brought about a public debate, but also, as in Germany or Austria, a new orientation of the churches, which places particular emphasis on the prevention and training of employees.

At present, as many people as possible, who encounter children and adolescents on a professional or voluntary basis in Catholic institutions, should undergo prevention training in these countries. All dioceses have set very strict guidelines for this.

In this respect, the abuse scandal in the Catholic Church has also done something good. Now there are many training concepts, guidelines and codes of conduct, and adult educators and other professionals are needed to do the job.

Keep distance, ensure a climate of trust, empower children

Lisa Thoben is a trained sex therapist and carries out such training on behalf of the diocese of Münster in Germany.

“First and foremost, training is about teaching appropriate behaviour towards children and adolescents.”

Maintaining distance and avoiding physical contact, reacting and acting professionally and not too familiarly, and steering clear of private matters are the essential aspects.

Beyond that, however, there is much training content that is very important in addition to these concrete patterns of action. These include, for example, internet crimes, the ability to recognise victims and to deal with them properly, learning to ensure in their own institution that there is a climate of openness and trust.

“The use of sexualised phrases and words should also be critically questioned. An important point is the empowerment of children and their ability to resist abuse and confide in other people,” says Lisa Thoben.

Culture of prevention missing in most EU countries

The German approach is in line with the 2007 Lanzarote Convention, the “Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse.

Article 5 of this convention, launched by the European Council, explicitly provides that raising awareness and training should be available for all those working in the field of child and youth work.

The convention is, however, barely known, but its implementation is reviewed in regular studies. The European Parliament’s “Combating Sexual Abuse of Children” study (2017) expressly laments the backwardness of prevention in many countries.

“Development of a ‘culture of prevention’ around child sexual abuse is missing at EU level, and Member States’ practices vary considerably in this field. Despite some promising results in some Member States where specific and targeted programmes have been implemented, there is no consensus on what works to prevent child sexual abuse and what intervention programmes are effective in preventing recidivism,” the study reads.

To answer this need, the Council of Europe has developed its own education and prevention programme, the “Pestalozzi (Sex/sexuality education – Personal development, prevention of discrimination and violence) programme.

The Council also declared November 18 “End Child Sex Abuse Day“.

Erasmus projects on child sexual abuse prevention hard to find

Moreover, it is not only a culture of child abuse prevention that is missing in Europe as, within the scope of the European education program “Erasmus +”, there are hardly any significant projects on the subject.

Nevertheless, a couple of good examples can be found.

In the “We protect children against sexual abuse” (2016, Erasmus+) innovation project, an eLearning tool was developed on the question of how parents interact with their children about issues of the body, safety, dangerous situations and reactions on the Internet or in the real world.

The main problems concerning the issue of child sexual abuse are lack of sexual education and child protection policies in institutions

In addition, a number of projects have begun involving the development of standards and tools in the sports sector, including a “European Platform for the Protection of Children in Sport”.

One good example of an activity can be found in Poland, where intensive prevention work is being carried out by the “Empowering Children Foundation” (Fundacja Dajemy Dzieciom Siłę FDDS)

At the end of 2018 the foundation conducted a nationwide survey – a nationwide diagnosis of child abuse in Poland. Sexual abuse has been experienced by 7 percent of the respondents to the survey and 3 percent experienced it in the 12-month period preceding the research.

“The main problems concerning the issue of child sexual abuse are lack of sexual education and child protection policies in institutions. The responsibility for child safety is scattered among institutions and departments,” says Marta Skierkowska, a board member of the Polish foundation FDDS.

The Foundation has five units in Warsaw and Gdansk and 100 employees, and it works towards making sure that all children have a safe childhood and are treated as fully-fledged human beings with respect for their dignity.

The aim is to protect children from abuse and help those who have experienced violence to know their rights, believe in themselves and enjoy their lives.

The foundation offers psychological and legal help to abused children and their caregivers, teaches children how to avoid violence and abuse and teaches adults how to treat children and protect them.

Implementing institutional child protection standards from the bottom up

In Poland, there is no systemic education on the problem of child sexual abuse for professionals. FDDS therefore started a programme of implementing child protection standards in the institutions working with children (“We protect Children” programme).

Part of the programme is staff training. The programme was started in cooperation with the Ministry of Education, but in 2016 the ministry ceased cooperation in that field.

“So far, more than 4,200 institutions (schools, kindergartens, nurseries, organizations) have implemented child protection standards in the framework of the programme.”

Adult education in the programme is being implemented as training sessions, e-learning and publications.

“Learning and training are basic prevention tools that can raise awareness of the problem, and teach people how to recognise and prevent it. It is the only way to empower professionals, prepare them to react in ‘cases’, and motivate them to work with students and parents in teaching personal safety strategies,” says Marta Skierkowska.

While the polish Empowering Children Foundation may serve as a good example of a European abuse prevention activity, it also highlights a problem shared in many European countries.

Only time will tell what kind of a role adult education will play in the enormously important child sexual abuse prevention work in other countries in the future.

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Michael Sommer (PhD) is an ELM magazine editorial board member. He was the editor of the German magazine "Erwachsenenbildung" (until 2021) and works as a project developer for the Akademie Klausenhof. Email: sommer(at) Show all articles by Michael Sommer
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