An Institutional Reckoning: Holding Enablers Accountable for Sexual Abuse

January 30th, 2018 by SCC Lanc

Blog Post #14

January 29, 2018

Linda Crockett

Something different is happening.  The #Metoo movement has become a social tsunami and it’s not going to stop with holding individual perpetrators publicly accountable. Beginning in Hollywood, it is gaining momentum and rolling through previously imperturbable bastions of power in business, academia, hospitality, sports, medicine, the church and more.   And as this survivor-led movement gains power, it is clear that holding accountable the individuals that sexually harmed them is not enough.  Particularly not when the abuse occurs in an institutional setting such as church, school, or sports.

The 156 survivors who testified in court to being sexually abused during medical exams by Larry Nassar, former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University doctor, want justice that goes beyond life in prison for Nassar:  they want the people that enabled his abuse to be held accountable.  Not  only at Michigan State and USA Gymnastics, but also the U.S. Olympic Committee and Twistars Gymnastic Club (MI) where Nassar also admitted to sexually abusing young athletes. 

Nassar could not have operated this way for decades without institutional enablers, including all the coaches and trainers who “looked the other way”, the faculty and staff that disregarded the victims reports, the colleagues who protected their own, the trustees, boards, and executives of the involved organizations that failed to ensure the safety of those entrusted to their care.    

He was briefly suspended by MSU in 2014 during a Title IX investigation following a student compliant – but reinstated after a panel of “medical experts” (i.e. his colleagues) concluded there was nothing sexual about his treatments.  His social status and professional standing allowed him to get away with it for a very long time. Or at least, until those little girls became strong women survivors and realized they had a collective voice.

New hashtags have been springing up to highlight abuse within institutions where we should be able to trust that the most vulnerable among us, especially children, are safe. The betrayal of that trust is enormous and not limited to the highly publicized Catholic Church or Penn State child sexual abuse scandals. 

#MetooK12 calls attention to the shocking number of sexual assaults in schools, many of them peer-to-peer and not handled with anything even resembling Title IX compliance by school administrators.  Stop Sexual Assault in Schools, (SSAIS) started a national campaign to educate and empower students and parents to hold schools accountable. SSAIS was founded by parents whose daughter was raped by another student on a field trip.  “Not only have we been emotionally scarred as a family, we’ve endured endless frustration in holding the district accountable.  For the district, it’s never been about holding anyone accountable. It’s always been about fear of potential liability from day one. The district has just wanted this event to go away.” Joel Levin, the victim’s father commented.

#ChurchToo is generating an outpouring of stories from survivors in religious settings. A girl revealed her rape during a youth group prayer session, only to be asked if she’d repented. A child was told to “cover up” after a male classmate had been caught masturbating while looking at her.

These survivors also don’t want accountability to stop with the offenders: they want church leaders and others who enable offenders to do such harm to be held accountable. They want clergy and congregants to stop disbelieving or minimizing the stories of survivors. They are tired of hearing they are not good Christians if they can’t just “let it go”. They want an end to the privileging of quick forgiveness of offenders over the pain and suffering of survivors.

Early in January, the video of Memphis pastor Andy Savage receiving a standing ovation from his congregation when he expressed remorse over having what he called a “sexual incident” with a high school senior went viral.   The sexual abuse occurred when he served as youth pastor at another church years ago, and his victim was inspired by #MeToo to come forward publically.

The video generated massive outrage that the church would give Savage a platform on which the charismatic and popular pastor adeptly focused attention on how he has been “redeemed” instead of the real harm and life-long impact of that violation to a child.   To many survivors, myself included, the clapping of the congregants literally felt like a slap in the face.  It was a sound heard around the world, and gave new momentum to #ChurchToo.

#SilenceIsNotSpiritual quickly became a global steam of #ChurchToo, a movement calling upon the global faith community to stop standing by and start standing up for women and girls who experience violence.  Within hours after 150 leaders published a signed statement demanding that religious institutions stop minimizing and disregarding the claims of female victims of sexual and other violence, thousands responded.  The statement begins with a bold declaration:

  • Genesis 1: 26 declares that all people are made in the image of God, both men and women. Women are equally called and created with the full potential and capacity to steward the world. All abuse disfigures human dignity and distorts the image of God. Therefore, violence against her is violence against God.

In a news conference following the sentencing of Larry Nassar to 175 years in prison, survivors made it clear that the people and institutions that “fed” Nassar his victims must also be held accountable.

I did not know that at the same time Larry was penetrating me, USAG was systematically burying reports of sexual assault against member coaches in a file cabinet instead of reporting them, creating a culture where predators like Larry and so many others in the organization up to the highest-level coaches were able to sexually abuse children, including our Olympians, without any fear of being caught. Rachael Denhollander, victim-impact statement.

Survivors are demanding more than the usual status quo institutional responses of handling allegations internally and not reporting to law enforcement or child protective services. Other practices have included public statements condemning the abuse and pledging internal investigations; the hiring of an outside investigative firm that will not bite the hand that pays their consulting fee; the tolerance of technical legal arguments to disclaim culpability; boards that give in to public pressure and force a high level resignation or two; non-disclosure settlements with survivors to keep them quiet. These responses, along with the quick forgiveness and restoration of offenders to positions of power and authority, are no longer acceptable.

  • Why could Nassar get away with sexually abusing little girls for so very long? How could two major institutions surrounding him so abhorrently fail at protecting the children and women under their care?” asks Rachel Denhollander.
  • “Why did it take a succession of three cardinals and many bishops 34 years to place children out of John J. Geoghan’s reach?” asked the Boston Globe in its award winning investigation of Catholic priest abuse and institutional cover up in Boston.
  • “How could so many people ignore so many allegations of abuse for so long?” asked the prosecution at the trial of football coach Jerry Sandusky?”

The answers to these questions have everything to do with institutional cultures that allow bystanders and enablers to escape accountability.  It’s easy to put all the blame on someone like Jerry Sandusky,  Larry Nassar or John Geoghan.  But justice will not be served until there is an institutional reckoning. The tsunami started by #MeToo is coming and no ground will be high enough for the institutional enablers to escape. 



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