Larry Nassar, Jeffery Epstein, and Jerry Sandusky: Their names will be forever tarnished. No one will remember the once-skilled doctor to the stars or the amazing coach who developed young talents. They will go down in history as infamous predators for their heinous acts against minors.
Imagine, however, what Nassar’s life would have looked like had Michigan State held him accountable following the first few reports of sexual misconduct. How would have Sandusky’s future been changed had he been offered a path to treatment from the initial onset of abuse?
You’re probably thinking—”whatever, they deserve to rot in jail and deserve no future.” Would the outcome have been different had they been held accountable from the onset? When I started my advocacy for victims in 2017, I was, and still am, focused and pained by the trauma victims endured. Yet, I’m even more outraged by the organizations that enabled the cover up these crimes.
After so many years of putting sexual offenders behind bars—from members of the Catholic Church to leading figures in top-tier universities and K-12 schools—we’ve seen little if no decline in sexual abuse cases. The band-aids we’ve placed over the thousands of festering wounds has only resulted in recurrence. And recurrence mutated with a new strength, each time more infectious than the last.
To heal the wounds tearing society apart, we must fully grasp the impact on all stakeholders in the process. Having researched and looked into hundreds of sexual misconduct cases and compiling a detailed report, I noticed a persistent pattern that intensifies the abuse. At the onset, many incidents start as a minor misconduct which institutions are quick to dismiss. This then leads to repeat incidents. Each time, institutions will cover up the wrongdoing, emboldening the offenders to perpetuate the behavior. Eventually, this evolves into a more pervasive strain of abuse and dysfunction.
Cover Ups Impacts on Offender
The harm caused to victims and their families is evident. Far less evident, is the fact that cover-ups meant to shield an offender, end up hurting the offender with long-term detrimental impacts. To put this more succinctly: Offenders themselves become the victims of institutional cover-ups.
Allow me to elaborate. We send our children to school with full trust in the institution—its administrators, teachers, and staff. We trust that the institution will prioritize the safety of our kids over all else. Sadly, their priorities often lie elsewhere. Many incidents of sexual abuse go unreported. But in those instances when a child courageously comes forward, protecting that child becomes secondary. The institution’s primary concern is to minimize liability and shield its reputational image.
Within an institution, lies a network that enables cover-ups. I like to call the individuals that make up this network, the “malefactors.” Most often, the very center of these networks involves administrators, school principals, deans and other higher-level officials. They play a key role by sponsoring cover-up practices in order to preserve the organization’s reputation and minimize its liability. Their written policies, giving an appearance of prudence and the promotion of safety, are no more than fancy books on a shelf. Board members, parent volunteers, teachers, and other staff form the second ring of enablers. They tend to stand idle, follow along with the upper-tier leadership, or simply turn a blind eye.
And then there is something much less apparent. By holding the offender’s secret, the malefactors have made a puppet of the offender, creating a false sense of security.
Cover Ups Deprive Offenders from Path to Recovery
Betrayal comes at a steep cost not only to the victim of abuse, but to the offender as well. For the victim, the harm is obvious; he or she is cruelly denied well deserved justice and closure. For the offender, however, the institution’s betrayal is less obvious. When offenders are not held accountable from the onset and treated psychologically, they are denied an opportunity to move forward with healthy and functional lives. They tend to live in dire fear of their secrets being uncovered. They are often manipulated or blackmailed. They are silenced, dreading shame and humiliation. The perpetrator’s mental health issues deepen. With their wrongdoings legitimized, perpetrators are emboldened to perpetuate misconduct, and the window of opportunity to correct abusive behavior gradually closes. What might have been an isolated incident or two, turns into a series of heinous crimes with many victims. Instead of a short prison term and adequate mental treatment, these offenders become deprived of family and careers, destined to a lifetime behind bars.
In short, institutional malefactors have enabled the spread of a toxic virus, giving rise to an epidemic of normalized sexual abuse behavior that derails the lives victims and offenders alike.
Since I started my advocacy work on behalf of students, I’ve realized that many victims do speak up. Oftentimes, however, fearing retaliation, they’re discouraged and intimidated by the offender and institutional malefactors. At some point, perhaps years later, many of these cases find themselves exposed, creating massive liability for the institution and associated parties.
For a while, I pondered whether things could turn out differently. If only institutions could exercise better judgement and think longer-term. Could we promote a zero-tolerance mindset to hold perpetrators immediately accountable, to nip incidents at the early stage, to “flatten the curve” and curb ineffective behavior? I concluded with a resounding “yes.”
The secrecy and protections granted Nassar and Sandusky over the years made them into serial monsters. Authorities claimed they needed more evidence to make their case and waited for more victims to come forward. But this in itself, created even more victims. Had they taken quick and decisive action at the first report of misconduct everyone would have been better off—victims, offenders, their respective families, and institutions.
Accountability to Healthy Recovery
Taking quick action early on, promotes trust in all parties. It heals wounds that otherwise fester. It stops serial behavior in its tracks, sparing trauma to multiple victims, saving offenders from much harsher penalties, and reducing institutional liability. It stops the spread of the virus.
To illustrate the importance of taking early action in stemming serial abuse, consider the story of Rob. When Rob was twenty, he assaulted a fifteen-year-old girl. The victim’s parents immediately brought him to justice. He was imprisoned for one year for statutory rape. After violating his parole, he was sentenced to an additional two years. Following jail time, Rob was ordered to consult with a therapist. Initially reluctant, he went through several months of rehabilitation. He grew to become an active member in his therapy group’s battle for mental recovery. He now works as an electrical engineer and is married with two daughters. While still a registered sex offender, he is barred from school grounds and events. Rob’s second chance resulted in positive change. He contributes to society with his work, and most importantly, he has no desire to commit abuse. Rob is not alone. His story resonates with those of countless rehabilitated offenders. (see https://time.com/5272337/sex-offenders-therapy-treatment/)
Solution: Training + Technology + Restorative Accountability = Shift in Culture
A shift in institutional culture is imperative to stop the perverted cycle of abuse and cover-up. It calls for an entirely different mindset that holds everyone responsible and accountable from the onset of an incident. We must institute practical measures to correct behavior, promote enforcement and transparency at every level of an organization. It calls for checks and balances. Empty rhetoric must give way to actual implementation of a zero-tolerance practice. Every decision must start and end with the impact to a child’s well-being and safety.
But how to achieve this? The answer lies in a three-pronged solution consisting of education, training and technology. All stakeholders within an organization serving minors must undergo mandatory training and education. The program must be comprehensive. All stakeholders, including minors, must understand their rights, responsibilities, and the consequences of their actions.
Following an incident of misconduct, all parties must fulfill their respective duties. Institutions must act swiftly to hold offenders accountable. Accountability includes giving a second chance to correct the behavior through compassionate therapy. Taking ownership of the offense and understanding its impact on the victim, his or her family and society as a whole is essential.
But to expect all stakeholders to “do the right thing” is wishful thinking. Yes, education and training play a critical role in changing the prevailing culture. But the introduction of technology to the mix makes this formula a game changer. A system to report, track and manage complaints acts as a central repository of information. Accessible by the stakeholders involved, such a system is independent and free of influence of potential conflicts of interest. Curtailing serial abuse starts with flagging low-severity incidents early on, addressing them constructively and compassionately.
The adoption of this technology would hold school officials, administrators, and staff accountable. Throughout the investigative process and leading up to the complaint’s resolution, the system deters cover-ups, exposing potential malefactors to personal liability. The system is practically self-policing. It encourages school leaders and administrators to engage in a collaborative and constructive process resolution that restore trust in leadership and community.
This technology exists but needs widespread institutional adoption. Coupled with education and training, its implementation becomes a powerful tool that can bring about impacting change.
Arnold Bennett, a prominent writer and journalist, said that “any change, even a change for the better, is always accompanied by drawbacks and discomforts.” Given society’s natural resistance to change, I wonder what it would take for stakeholders and community leaders to realize the pressing need to adopt a holistic solution. I call on those courageous individuals willing to lighten the path to promote this critical cultural shift.
Lea Wolf, co-founder of ICIARA, is a social entrepreneur spearheading a wide range of socially responsible projects aimed at human empowerment and social justice.