Investigating sexual abuse

A 1985 calendar from the BBC shows the iconic TV host, Jimmy Savile, as Santa Claus. Savile died last year but has left the BBC mired in scandal after accusations of his serial sexual abuse came to light. (Photo from, Creative Commons license.)

Investigating sexual abuse requires a special set of skills, not least of them sensitive approaches to interviewing victims. Those who have reported on patterns of abuses have also used social-science methods, such as surveys and focus-group discussions. Others have mined public records, including court cases and crime reports, to get a sense of the magnitude of the problem. In some cases, news organizations and NGOs have published searchable databases that list the offenders and their crimes, drawing from documents released in the course of judicial proceedings.

In recent years, public sympathy for – and media scrutiny of – such abuses have encouraged survivors to break their silence and muster the courage to talk about what had been done to them. The curent controversy roiling the BBC is the most recent example. It’s now apparent that for decades, the celebrity TV presenter, Jimmy Savile, was a predatory pedophile and serial sex offender even as he was host of some of the BBC’s most loved TV programs. The BBC now stands accused not only of having blocked the airing of a program that exposed Savile, but also of a culture that condoned the TV icon’s behavior.

The Savile scandal – police say that they are looking at as many as 200 potential victims – has echoes of earlier stories, among others, that of Jerry Sandusky, the Penn State coach who was recently convicted of 45 counts of sexual abuse of young boys over a 15-year period. A decade ago, the Boston Globe blew the lid on widespread sex abuse by Catholic priests, setting off what is said to be one of the worst scandals that has hit the Roman Catholic church in 500 years. Since then, there have been exposes of similar patterns of abuse among Catholic priests in Ireland, Australia, Belgium and elsewhere.

In the 1990s, journalist Patrick Boyle found over 1,000 abuse cases in the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) by examining BSA records, court cases and news articles and interviewing more than 200 people. He wrote a book on the abuse, saying that the Scouts were a magnet for child molesters and pedophiles. Scouting abuse scandals continue: a recent court case in Oregon yielded a dossier on alleged abusers that was kept by the Boy Scouts and made public just last week (see Databases, below).

Some patterns emerge from past investigations of sexual abuse:

  • The abuses are perpetrated by men in positions of power, authority or influence.
  • Their victims are young, vulnerable and often unable or unwilling to talk about what has been done to them.
  • The organizational or institutional culture allows the abuse to happen over and over, often for years, even decades.
  • When the abuses are exposes, the organizations that have been somehow complicit in them cover up or protect the abusers.

Below are some resources that will help journalists navigate this difficult terrain:

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How do I bribe thee? Let me count the ways.


In China, “elegant bribery” means using artwork to pay off officials. Photo shows a Tang dynasty copy of a famous work of calligraphy (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

I’m leafing through an interesting little book called, How to Pay a Bribe. It’s a compilation of articles written by journalists, lawyers and private investigators. Intended largely for companies operating overseas, the book provides tips on how to avoid being prosecuted for corruption. It’s worthwhile reading for journalists if only because it documents the various forms of state-of-the-art bribery. If there’s food porn, this is corruption porn.

Here’s a titillating quote from an unidentified oil middleman interviewed by the journalist Ken Silverstein;  “You used to give a dictator a suitcase of dollars; now you give a tip on your stock shares, or buy a housing estate from his uncle or mother for ten times it’s worth.”

There are other ways to pay a bribe. Some are tried and true, and have been seen in various places; others are country-specific, like the very discreet “elegant bribery” practiced in China, described more fully below. Here are some of the juiciest examples – both crass and elegant – of the various forms of bribe-giving chronicled in How to Pay a Bribe:

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The secret world of private companies

You’d think that getting the names of the shareholders of a company would be fairly easy. Such information should be routinely available.

In fact in many parts of the world, it isn’t. Not if you’re talking about private companies, which have managed to elude public scrutiny even in an era of increasing transparency. To be sure, there’s a wealth of information on listed companies. But good luck researching a private firm. A recent World Bank study looked at the information stored by corporate registries in 40 jurisdictions. Its findings were pretty pathetic: Only a third of the registers required companies to release the names of their shareholders. Only one registry, Jersey, collected information on the beneficial or real ownership of a company. Everywhere else, the real owners can hide behind nominees.

Beyond ownership, registries generally collect only scant information on the finances and actual operations of private companies. Some registries don’t even require companies to give an address or physical location. Such secrecy allows them to evade government regulation and public scrutiny. It facilitates corruption, tax evasion and other crimes.

Those who want to dig into company information can only get so far by getting into corporate registers. They’d need to triangulate information from other public records (including those from other government regulatory bodies or the courts) as well as from well-informed human sources. There are also subscription databases (see list below) that aggregate information from a variety of sources worldwide. In addition, there are some helpful guides on investigating private firms (see below).

One of my favorite sites for researching private companies is Open Corporates, which has scraped company registers in some 60 jurisdictions worldwide and put the information on some 47 million companies in a single, easily searchable database. One can type in any name in the search box and get a list of all the companies on the database that have the name listed as a director or shareholder. It’s amazing.

But the problem is that Open Corporates can only scrape the data that company registers collect. As this presentation shows, that data is scant and much of what happens in the corporate world is invisible to citizens and even to regulators. There are limits to what scraping technology can do if the information does not exist.

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