Bringing an End to Sexual Abuse Cover Ups

By Lisa Bennett, NOW Communications Director

A big, male-dominated institution is presented with evidence of sexual abuse perpetrated from within its ranks. Rather than doing all they can to report the crimes and aid victims in their pursuit of justice, leaders of the institution circle the wagons and protect their own. Maintaining the institution’s vaunted reputation, which brings with it much power and riches, is prioritized over rooting out the guilty and promoting a safe environment for all.

Today the subject is the Penn State football program, but it could just as easily be the Catholic Church or the U.S. military or any institution that enjoys a faithful following. The many individuals who are the real strength of these institutions — the players, the churchgoers, the troops — are mostly innocent bystanders or collateral damage in these terrible scandals. The men at the top who stand to lose the most, they are the ones who tarnish these institutions through reckless acts of self preservation. Even worse than the shame they bring to the institutions they lead is the danger to countless women and children that they help to sustain, the crimes that accumulate under their watch.

Let’s not fool ourselves: Sexism and patriarchy are tightly woven into these “scandals” — without them, these heinous acts would be viewed much more critically and not allowed to fester. Silence and denial would not be an option. The privilege that has been heaped upon these men flows from a culture that continues to value men’s authority and accomplishments over the rights and safety of women. Powerful men have proven time and again that they will fight fiercely to protect the elevated status from which they greatly benefit. Protecting children, meanwhile, is still considered mainly the province of women. Which begs the question, if women ran these institutions, would sexual abuse be swept under the rug to the degree that it is now?

The upside to Louis Freeh’s report on Penn State that was issued today is that it holds accountable those who looked the other way while children were targeted for abuse. The best part is that people are talking about it, and if we can direct the conversation to the role that sexism and patriarchy played in these cover ups, perhaps we can change these systems in a real and profound way. We must not let the reverence our society has for such institutions stand in the way of an honest dialogue — in fact, it is that very reverence that smothers the potential for justice and healing.

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