The purpose of this article is to provide a practical guide for the prevention and management of the sexual abuse crisis in non-profit organizations. It will focus on crises involving allegations of the sexual abuse of clients or patients of an organization by that organization's employees.
Definition of sexual abuse
In many non-profit organizations in Ontario, sexual abuse is understood in terms of the definitions articulated in both the Regulated Health Professions Act (RHPA, 1991) and the Social Work and Social Service Work Act (SWSSWA,1998). Both Acts govern the practice of helping professionals in Ontario. The former governs the practice of the 21 health disciplines (physiotherapy, dentistry, nursing, etc.). The latter governs of the practice of social workers and social service workers.
Within both of these pieces of legislation, sexual abuse is defined as:
"sexual intercourse or other forms of physical sexual relations between the member and patient/client; touching of a sexual nature of the patient/client by a member; or behaviour or remarks of a sexual nature by the member towards the patient/client" (Sections 85 and 42 of the RHPA and SWSSWA, respectively).
"Sexual abuse" is broadly defined. Not only does it include inappropriate physical touching, but it also includes other inappropriate behaviours and remarks that might commonly be understood as harassment (making inappropriate comments about someone's body or dress; making sexually suggestive gestures or body motions at someone; asking someone on dates). Under both pieces of legislation, helping professionals are required not only to refrain from sexually abusing clients or patients, but also, to report other helping professionals when there are "reasonable grounds obtained in the course of practising" their professions on which to believe another professional has sexually abused a patient or client.
Although the definition of sexual abuse used in both the RHPA and the SWSSWA may well be adopted by public sector organizations for its simplicity and breadth, individuals other than members of the constituent disciplines are not required to conform to the legislation from which the definition is derived. For this reason, organizations such as schools and other non-profits employing lay people also rely on definitions of sexual abuse cited in alternate pieces of legislation including the Criminal Code of Canada (1985), the Ontario Human Rights Code (1990), the Child and Family Services Act (1990; CFS Amendment Act, 1999) and the Ontario College of Teachers Act (1996).
Costs of sexual abuse
Two recent Supreme Court cases have raised serious concern among non-profit organizations and their insurers (Alexander et al., 1999; Baksh & Blakeney, 1999; Bell & Hoffer, 2000). These cases involved the potential of non-profit organizations to be assigned vicarious (or "no fault") liability for sexual abuse committed by employees or volunteers. In both cases, the Court evaluated whether the "employer's empowerment of an employee materially increased the risk of sexual assault." Although both of the cases involved children, it should be noted that vicarious liability law could also apply to situations involving people of all ages.