Friday, December 22, 2017

The Culture of Institutional Silence and Sexual Abuse

The news about the death of cardinal Bernard Law made me re-read the Boston Globe material from 2002 and watch the movie Spotlight (about the Globe investigation into the Catholic Church's intentional protection of child abusing priests).  It is upsetting material to (re-)absorb.

Now, think of that institutional protection the church (and cardinal Law) awarded the pederasts, and then compare it to the institutional protection we now know that many, many sexual harassers (revealed in the #MeToo hurricane)  have received from their employers or from other institutions with which they were associated.   The examples are too many to list, but they range from Fox News, USA Gymnastics and Pennsylvania State University all the way to the US Congress.

The crucial aspect of that protection is silence.  The victims may be financially compensated, to "buy" their silence, but even when they are not compensated it is the silence that is clearly the final goal of all that protection, to protect the reputation of the institution and of the accused individuals if they are crucial for the well-being of the institution.

The costs of that silence fall on any future victims of serial sexual abusers.   The case of John Geoghan, one of Law's proteges in the Catholic Church's sexual abuse scandal, is a prime example of the damage that silence causes.  He was repeatedly moved from parish to parish, despite accusations that he had molested children in his previous parishes.  This made it possible for him to molest a much larger number of children.

Why the silence to protect institutions?  The obvious answer is that if one's conscience can take it then silence is the least-cost strategy for all others but the victim*.  No material rewards come to those who go public or defend the victims when those material rewards are on the say-so of the institutions. 

But I also believe that tribalism plays a role here:  Colleagues have each others' backs**, it matters who the insiders are and who the outsiders are, and "the institution" is often seen as a family which must be protected, even at the expense of the weakest and most vulnerable of its members***.

This culture of silence is not the same as a rape culture, but it's something that very much needs to be investigated so that we can dispense with it.  If possible.


*  A good example of the tendency for even individual workers to side with the firm for monetary reasons (the fear of jobs gone if sexual harassment court cases cause the factory to be moved) can be found in this article about sexual harassment in a blue-collar occupation.
** This is true even more generally.  One reason for that is the "tainting of the brand."  If some/many priests molest children, then all priests might be suspected of that tendency, and if some/many powerful men in the media molest women, then all powerful men in the media might be suspected of that tendency.

***  My impression is that the children most likely to be abused in the Catholic Church's sexual abuse cases were those who were poor, came from dysfunctional backgrounds (with less parental oversight) and were therefore least likely to be believed.  Likewise, many of the women serial predators seem to pick are young women with less experience and power.