ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.
Of all the horrific details contained in the Pennsylvania grand jury report on child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, one sentence stands out: “The main thing was not to help children, but to avoid ‘scandal.”’
When sex-abuse cases dominate headlines, a familiar pattern often emerges. If it took place at a large organization – be it a church, a large state university or a group such as USA Gymnastics – misconduct is often covered up in hopes of saving the institution’s reputation and the money that accompanies it.
Why is the role of institutions so powerful? Because they command emotion. They inspire loyalty. And they have established ways of doing things that rev up when problems surface.
Perhaps most relevantly, they often have a community built around them, geographically or otherwise. And preserving that community can become a priority – even over something as seemingly fundamental as protecting the youngest among us.
In short, when bad things happen inside institutions, the ingredients are already there to make things even worse.
“We have to stop protecting our rainmakers, and we have to hold them to the values we espouse, not just move them around,” said Kim Churches, CEO of the American Association of University Women.
Consider the case of USA Gymnastics and doctor Larry Nassar, who abused hundreds of girls and women under the guise of medical treatment while employed at Michigan State University.
Nassar is now serving a decades-long prison sentence for molesting patients and possessing child pornography. Victims had reported Nassar’s conduct to university employees for years and said they were ignored.
“They weren’t believed, and weren’t protected in the way they needed to be,” says Natalie Rogers, an organizer with Reclaim MSU, an alliance of students, staff, faculty and alumni advocating for increased accountability and transparency.
“Institutional culture here was what silenced them,” Rogers says.
And remember the 2011 sex scandal that gripped Penn State, when it came to light that assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky molested dozens of boys? A report asserted that famed head coach Joe Paterno and other university leaders were made aware of suspicions about Sandusky’s actions but didn’t take action to stop it.
The much-debated report unpacking the university’s role, written by FBI Director Louis Freeh, said action wasn’t taken and facts were hidden at Penn State “in order to avoid the consequences of bad publicity.”
At Ohio State, there’s a growing list of more than 100 former students and athletes who say they were groped and otherwise mistreated by Dr. Richard Strauss, a deceased athletic department doctor who worked at the university for nearly 20 years. There are questions about whether Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan knew about the abuse when he was an assistant wrestling coach at Ohio State during the same time.
“Sadly, all too often, we still see organizations wanting to preserve the brand and preserve the money, either by moving alleged perpetrators out of the organization to another area, rather than getting rid of them, or not acting in a way that’s protecting the victims,” says Churches.
Why would that be, though? Why wouldn’t an institution reflexively prioritize the protection of the very people most likely to help chart its future? Alan Salpeter, an attorney at Arnold & Porter in Chicago, says there’s usually one key reason why abuse is covered up.
“It happens because of weaknesses in the culture of the institution,” says Salpeter, a crisis-management expert who has written about the Penn State situation.
Those weaknesses can be to protect profit or power. The Penn State case, he says, is an example of a power-based weakness that devolved into a cone of silence and protection (though it also involved money, in the form of alumni support of the football program and the university overall).