Whats Behind The Pileup Of Sex Abuse Scandals

Sociologists see a pattern that goes beyond the culture of specific schools, churches and industries: an ingrained resistance to self-policing or defying a community’s hierarchy.

Over just the past few months, multiple stories have broken about powerful or prestigious organizations that tolerated or concealed serious abuse for years.

This week, for instance, Herlufsholm, an elite Danish boarding school that was attended by Prince Christian of Denmark until his parents pulled him out a few days ago, has been engulfed in a bullying and abuse scandal. In August, an Associated Press investigation found that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ abuse hotline diverted complaints of child abuse away from law enforcement, leaving some children in dangerous or abusive situations for years. Last May, an independent investigation found that the Southern Baptist Convention had covered up and enabled sexual assaults and other abuse of parishioners.

Go back slightly further in time, and the stack of scandals grows higher: Larry Nassar and U.S.A. Gymnastics. Jerry Sandusky and Penn State. Multiple different abusers within the Catholic Church. Various private schools. The movie industry. The Boy Scouts. University campuses.

Whenever a story like that breaks, the focus tends to be on the specifics: the psychological profile of the abuser, and the culture or ideology of the organization where the abuse occurred. But another way of interpreting those cases consistently gets overlooked: that abuse scandals are just one example of a much broader human resistance to self-police wrongdoing within our own groups and communities.

That tendency can leave abuse victims and other marginalized people in terrible danger — and can also end up harming the very institutions that are trying to protect themselves.

Patrick Smith/Getty Images

In the fall of 2013, as Penn State University struggled with the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal, the school announced that it would give every incoming freshman a copy of “Beautiful Souls” by Eyal Press, a book about people who stood up against wrongdoing in their workplaces and communities. A banker who reported financial improprieties at the firm she worked for. Soldiers who refused to participate in human rights violations. A police officer who quietly disobeyed rules that kept Jews out of Switzerland during the Holocaust.

“I think it was obvious why they chose the book,” Press told me in an interview this week. “They felt like, you know, ‘God, if only an upstander had come forward and spared the university from this horrific embarrassment and scandal. We would like to inculcate this principled behavior in our students, because we’ve seen what happens at an institution when everybody stays silent and conforms.’”

If that was the plan, however, I have to wonder if those who selected “Beautiful Souls” had actually read it. Because it’s not a book about the importance of that kind of heroism. It’s a book about how much human society consistently hates and rejects it. (The term “beautiful soul” is actually an insult in Israel, where Press first came across it. Its connotations fall somewhere between “bleeding heart” and “treacherous hypocrite.”)

The human impulse to conform is so powerful that it can shape people’s view of reality, morality, and everything in between. Group norms and opinions about what behavior is right or wrong often have more influence on people’s moral attitudes than actual laws do. And in the famous conformity study by the researcher Solomon Asch, a majority of participants chose to select a clearly incorrect answer to a question rather than defy the group by selecting the right one.

And so when someone defies conformity by calling out wrongdoing within a group, including sexual abuse, other members of that community tend to react with disbelief, anger and ostracism.

“The real lesson of the book is that we love to honor these individuals from a distance, and after the fact,” Press told me. “But listening to them — not even honoring them, just listening to them! — in real time, when they are calling out our own behavior or our own institutions, is exceedingly rare.”

The people Press wrote about tended to be ostracized and punished for taking a stand against wrongdoing in their own communities. Some lost their careers, others their reputations. And the wrongdoing they opposed mostly continued anyway.

Pool photo by Saul Loeb

Viewing abuse scandals against that broad backdrop of human behavior makes them look a little bit different than they do on their own. Because when an abuse victim speaks out against a valued member of their own community — a teacher, professor, pastor, respected athlete, or even a respected peer — that is, in effect, a refusal to conform to the group’s norms of who is to be trusted and valued, and a violation of its hierarchy.

Sometimes the hierarchy is a formal one, as in the case of some religious institutions or the military. But sometimes it’s the result of subtler structures of sexism, race, or class. But whether the norm is overt or implied, challenging it can seem transgressive. And that makes it easy for people in power to dismiss abuse claims as motivated by personal vendettas, greed or delusion.

Abuse scandals tend to follow a pattern, said Nicole Bedera, a sociologist who studies the ways that groups and institutions enable sexual violence.

“We get caught up in the details of individual cases as if each one of them is different, and each organizational response is different, but that’s not true,” she said. “The finer details might change a little bit from case to case, but the organizational response to sexual violence in general tends to be pretty consistent, especially in organizations that are allowed to self-police or to self-govern.”

People who brought abuse claims, she found, were often presumed to be untrustworthy or mistaken. When victims reported abuse, institutions like universities, schools or churches tended to react with doubt and skepticism. That doubt was used to justify inaction, enabling the abuse to continue. “What I’ve found is people won’t say ‘I don’t believe the victim.’ They’ll just say ‘I’m not sure enough,’” Bedera told me.

The pattern was not just one of skepticism against those who raised abuse complaints, however. She also found that institutions tend to act to protect individuals who are perceived as high-value members of their communities — in sexual assault cases, usually high-value men.

Sometimes that value was concrete. At one university she studied in depth, the category included scholars who are seen as having important academic legacies to protect, or successful student athletes. But she also found that men, particularly if they were white, were often seen as automatically carrying their potential future accomplishments with them, and so were treated as high-value individuals even if they were still just teens. The women who raised accusations of assault or abuse, by contrast, were not presumed to have valuable futures worth protecting.

The result was that, over time, abuse victims tended to be disbelieved or dismissed. Perpetrators were given the benefit of the doubt, and took advantage of that freedom to continue their abuses. And that eventually led to harm not just for the victims, but for the institutions that had enabled the harm to continue.

Institutions end up damaging themselves even more because of this, because it just means that the abuses go on for a longer time,” Press said. “If you think about the Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, or Penn State for that matter, eventually the dirty laundry gets aired.”

“And the longer the institution waits, the worse it is for everyone.”

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