Ask a Question Friday: Reporting and Institutions

This week’s question, two days late.

Joelle, how do scandals in places like Penn State and the Catholic Church start? I mean, these aren’t bad people in these institutions, right? Will new policies by these organizations and others make sure that men and women who abuse children are reported and stopped, instead of protected?

This is a complicated question that I will try to answer as simply as possible. We love our institutions. We love them so much that, sometimes, very good people do bad things in order to protect the reputation of the institution. It’s easy to think, “Gosh, the church/scouts/school promised to take care of us. They would never do something to intentionally hurt a child.”

But unfortunately, they do. Institutions are only as good as the people in them. Good people should stand up for principles, morality, and child safety, even if it means that they risk their job, the reputation of the institution, or community opinion. But as we’ve seen, it’s not always the case.

In places like Penn State and the Catholic Church, people who saw, suspected or learned about abuse didn’t do the one important thing that could have stopped the cycle: Call the police. Yes, there are cases where the police were notified, but in many of these, investigations were stonewalled by employees and polices that kept very important evidence out of the hands of cops and prosecutors.

I don’t have a lot of faith that new policies in these institutions will make real change. Policies don’t change how institutions operate. People do. It’s the culture of the institution that ensures openness, safety, transparency and accountability. Culture is created by people from the top down and the bottom up. The importance of culture goes beyond child sexual abuse—large corporations deal with the problems of culture all of the time. When the culture begins to go sour (Enron, anyone?), all of the policies of the world won’t change it. Only real culture change within the organizations will do that. Only PEOPLE can do that.

If you don’t see real cultural change in an institution that has protected child predators in the past, then chances are that all of the policies and rules in the world aren’t going to make a lick of difference.

I hate to be somewhat of a downer on the subject, but there is an upside: YOU can create the culture of an institution. In the case of child sexual abuse, it’s a simple as this: if you see, suspect, or hear about child sexual abuse, report to LAW ENFORCEMENT first, then inform upper management, if you feel comfortable doing so. If you have questions about your suspicions, call the ChildHelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD. Your identity will remain confidential.

If you saw a co-worker punching an innocent bystander in the face, you’d call the cops, right? If a co-worker came to you bloodied and bruised, and told you that another co-worker had violently attacked him, you’d call the cops, right? If you had real fear that co-worker was violent and was going to hurt someone, you’d report right? Child sex abuse is no different. Let’s quit pretending it is.


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