It's been a year of reckoning. The sexual abuse scandals at Michigan State and Ohio State have rocked academic institutions, athletic departments, and Olympic federations. Scandal has spread to Ohio State's diving club as well, where a then-16-year-old girl accused her former coach of sexual abuse, with records showing that administrators sat on the news for weeks before notifying police or child welfare.
Now, just this week, Pennsylvanians got a first look at a nearly 900-page grand jury report detailing 70 years of child sexual abuse at the hands of priests in six Pennsylvania dioceses, with about 300 clergy named in the report alleging abuse against more than 1,000 children. The dioceses in Philadelphia and Altoona-Johnstown were spared from this week's report only because an earlier grand jury had already reviewed evidence against four priests, later charged.
Tragic as these scandals are, the only thing new about them is our awareness of them—they'd been going on for decades. The time for shock is past. Now, we must ask ourselves: what can be done?
As institutional abuse scandals continue to catch like wildfire, a pattern emerges. In each case, as in so many other high-profile abuse scandals at institutions, the risk-management machinery whirs into action. Lawyers, investigators, spokespeople, and leaders convene quickly to chart a plan to respond. What's our exposure to lawsuits? How can we challenge the victim's story? How can we mitigate the PR damage? Institutions may have improved the speed with which they begin to answer these questions, but seldom stop to wonder whether these questions should be asked at all.
Yet victims' interests are so often left off the table. It's a strange decision, because time and time again we have seen that leaders who fail to put victims first will fall.
In this new and welcome reality, I'd like to pose a new strategy for leaders: pause, remember that a victim is a real human being speaking out about a horrific crime against them, and call to report a crime. That's it. Teach staff this instinct from top to bottom. Make this the core of your policies and procedures. Enforce it. The questions about the cost to the institution can be answered later, because every bit of risk rides on what leaders choose to do the moment they find out something terrible may have happened.
The reflex to defend the institution and its reputation is natural to leaders, but it's one they will have to fight. The real risk to an institution comes in treating a victim the same as any other risk to be managed. Children are not hurricanes or wrecks or economic downturns. They are human beings. The difference between abuse allegations and all other types of pitfalls an organization may face is that a leader's response will be judged for what it is: an immediate moral choice.
More coverage of the PA grand jury report
Hundreds of priests named in grand jury report | Grand jury: A child porn ring in Pittsburgh diocese | Report says cover-up began at the top | Key findings from each diocese | Mike Newall: If the grand jury report doesn't force a reckoning for the Catholic Church, it's time to walk away | Christine Flowers: Channeling sorrow and anger after reading the clergy abuse report | Maria Panaritis: A Friar's suicide, a lawyer who pressed on and the truth about Pa.'s Catholic Church sex abuse | Opinion: Would Catholic church scandal be uncovered without the free press?
The original sin of abuse will always lie with a Jerry Sandusky, the Penn State assistant football coach sentenced for crimes against children in 2012, or a Father John Geoghan, the Boston priest and convicted child serial rapist who died at the hands of a fellow prisoner in 2003. But a pivotal moment occurs when a leader—whether of an academic institution, corporation, or faith community—chooses, right then and there, whether to believe and protect the very first victim—or to protect the institution.
Abusers did not manage to harm dozens or hundreds of children without the complicity of leaders whose misplaced priorities both destroyed many lives and ruined the reputations of the previously venerated institutions they led. Whatever great legacy these leaders and organizations might have otherwise had, it is all ashes now.
There is a Latin phrase attributed to Cicero: esse quam videri: "to be, rather than to seem." All institutions and leaders that would protect the most vulnerable, avoid the decades of trauma and suffering of victims, or even just to preserve their own reputation, should take this moment to take stock. Are we the good we wish for others to see in our institutions—or is merely seeming good enough?