The Not-So-Secret Institutional Code Words for Child Sex Abuse




There has been no shortage of news this summer when it comes to the US clergy sex abuse crisis. Although the Vatican is attempting to clean up the mess as much as possible before Pope Francis’ September visit (including accepting the resignations of the St. Paul and Minneapolis archbishop and bishop, as well as finally ousting the convicted Kansas City-St. Joseph bishop), very little has changed when it comes to zero tolerance.

You can read about some of the recent scandals—where credibly accused priests remain in ministry—here, here, and here.

We still need to remain vigilant. And as more victims in other organizations such as the Boy Scouts and religious groups besides the Catholic Church come forward and demand justice, it’s vital that we remember that our top priorities must always be child safety and victim healing.

In light of this, let’s go back to basics: the Code Words.

If you or your child are a part of an organization with an allegation of child sexual abuse, demand transparency … or leave the group. And if you’re wondering if your institution is transparent, keep an eye out for these cover-up Code Words. Not every code word means that there is sexual abuse, but every one of these code words can be a sign of real trouble and cover-up.


  • Boundary violation
  • Inappropriate touching
  • Victim alleged additional details, discredited
  • Long hugs
  • Kissing
  • Secrets
  • Confidential investigation
  • Accused is a minor
  • Tickling, horseplay, rough-housing
  • Questionable photos
  • Monitored employee
  • Not allowed to work with children
  • Immature (when describing an employee)
  • Consensual relationship with a teen/child
  • Well-developed child
  • Troubled/emotionally disturbed child or family
  • History of alcohol/drug abuse (in victim or alleged perpetrator)
  • Mature teen
  • Lap-sitting
  • Co-sleeping
  • Overnight, unsupervised trips
  • Affair with a teen/child
  • Inappropriate (and not described) conduct
  • Internal investigation (that is not made public)
  • Employee sent to undisclosed treatment
  • “Times were different”
  • After numerous interviews, child retracted the story
  • Complete review of personnel file (that is not made public)
  • Misunderstood affection

The code words fall into categories: victim blaming (victim changing story, mature teens, consensual relationships, affairs, emotional disturbance), ignorance (“times were different”), minimization (treatment, misunderstood affection, tickling, horseplay).

I am more than happy to add to the list … so feel free to respond in the comments.



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