The Real Penn State Scandal: It’s Typical
A look at the organizational patterns that enable child abuse.
It's easy to be mad at Joe Paterno these days. I'm not.
As a dad, what fires me up about the sex abuse scandal at Penn State is not how shocking the revelations are. It's how typical they are.
The recent investigation found that Paterno and other university leaders "covered up allegations of sexual abuse in order to avoid the consequences of bad publicity." Penn State, join the club.
Yes, you'll find the Catholic Church in that club. You'll also find the Boy Scouts, the Mormon church, public schools, Jehovah's Witnesses, sports leagues, orthodox Jewish communities, juvenile prisons, day care centers and many more revered institutions. Leaders in these organizations have routinely minimized the severity of abuse allegations in their ranks, dismissed the words of victims, intimidated parents into silence, hidden abuse from police and misled the public about the extent of the problem.
Why? Because they are the heads of corporations trying to control a product defect. They see abuse allegations as aberrations, the exposure of which threatens to eviscerate the good work they do for young people –as well as the reputations and the finances of their companies. So they behave like abusers: They minimize, they justify, they hush.
To be sure, some youth organizations have confronted sex abuse problems head on. In the 1980s, Big Brothers studied reported cases of abuse among its “littles” and shaped policies around the findings. The Civil Air Patrol started doing criminal background checks on volunteers while other youth organizations protested that they couldn’t afford it.
Other organizations, however, have engaged in a conspiracy of silence that protects molesters. Let’s consider some stories from other venerated institutions and notice the organizational patterns that enable child abuse:
Orthodox Jews: In the orthodox community of Lakewood, N.J., a couple tells rabbis in 2009 that their son was abused by a camp counselor/yeshiva teacher. The rabbis conduct an internal investigation, saying the Jewish legal doctrine of Mesirah forbids reporting a fellow Jew to secular authorities.
Frustrated by the rabbis' sympathy for the alleged abuser, the parents report him to authorities, who make an arrest. The rabbis circulate a proclamation to dissuade anyone from talking to investigators, saying, "It is prohibited [for anyone] to assist and participate with the secular authorities in their efforts to persecute a Jewish person."
Isolated incident? Similar allegations surface in Lakewood and other New Jersey communities; a Jewish abuse victims network sprouts in Baltimore; and in Brooklyn, the district attorney launches an initiative (with its own hotline) to investigate abuse allegations and cover-ups in orthodox Jewish communities.
Boy Scouts of America: In the early 1900s, BSA national headquarters starts keeping files on adults banned from scouting for various offenses. When a lawsuit compels the BSA to submit its files about people banned for alleged sex abuse from 1946 through 2007, the total comes to 5,000.
The files reveal a culture of convincing parents and law enforcement authorities to let molesters go away quietly: In Illinois, a volunteer admits to abusing a Scout and agrees to resign, according to a memo to BSA headquarters, "in return for no further legal action on the part of the council." Tennessee Scout officials talk a victim's parents out of contacting police or the local human services agency, promising that they will "handle the situation." They let the man go away quietly; he's arrested months later for molesting another boy. When a Scout official in South Carolina tells national headquarters about the arrest of a volunteer for taking nude pictures of Scouts, a national official writes back, "I hope the news media maintains its silence related to his involvement with Scouting. This will certainly help us, not only in your area, but across the country."
Corrections systems: Sexual assaults are rampant in juvenile correctional facilities, and the offenders are often adult guards and other staff -- the very people who conduct sexual assault investigations. A 2010 report by the U.S. Department of Justice estimated that 12 percent of youth in custody were sexually abused at their facilities in the past year - the vast majority of them by staff.
Typical are the findings from a 2011 report by the Justice Department about the Leflore County Juvenile Detention Center in Mississippi. The report accused the facility of repeatedly "failing to properly report and investigate abuse by staff." One example: A youth "alleged that he was sexually assaulted by a staff member and later attempted suicide at the facility. Facility management conducted an egregiously deficient investigation by speaking with the youth, then speaking with the staff member, and then simply concluding that there was no evidence of a sexual assault. There is no indication that the State was contacted regarding the abuse allegations."
The facility director wrote the local police chief, "Do not let this troubled young man's false allegations stop [the County] from allowing Leflore County to serving [sic] your Juvenile Detainment Needs."
Public schools: School superintendents call it "moving the trash": letting teachers and coaches accused of untoward acts, such as sex with kids, move on to other districts without telling those districts about the accusations.
The most thorough national report on sex abuse in public schools (Educator Sexual Misconduct: A Synthesis of Existing Literature, 2004) found that "when alleged misconduct is reported, the majority of complaints are ignored or disbelieved." A 1990s study of 225 cases of "educator sexual abuse" in New York state found that "all of the accused had admitted to sexual abuse of a student but none of the abusers was reported to authorities and only 1 percent lost their license to teach."
These are just a few in a line of institutional sex abuse scandals that stretch back 25 years. Being angry isn't good enough anymore. Have we learned anything?
We see that some institutional leaders protect their institutions first; they have a vested interest in believing the denials of the accused and dismissing the claims of the abused; their faith in their organizations compels them to see allegations as isolated incidents; that faith blinds them to patterns of abuse; they look for ways to make the cases go away quietly; many parents gladly oblige.
This conspiracy plays on our disgust and our fears. The tragic result is summed up in the 2004 report about public schools: "Abuse is allowed to continue."
Patrick Boyle is Communications Director of the nonprofit Forum for Youth Investment and author of Scout's Honor: Sexual Abuse in America's Most Trusted Institution.