Freeh: Institutional Failure to Deal with Sexual Abuse

Former FBI Director Louis Freeh led an independent committee investigation into the sexual abuse scandal at Penn State University involving convicted sex felon Jerry Sandusky.  They published a Report today with their findings which were very critical of the climate and culture at the University which enabled the sexual abuse to continue for several years.

My interest is not so much in Penn State or the university culture in general.  Rather I take an interest in those elements of these investigations that have, at least in my mind, some relevance to the church and church administration in dealing with issues of sexual abuse.  The Penn St. case taught us that sexual abuse exists not only in the Roman Catholic Church, but rather is a societal and human problem.  Every institution, including the institutional organizations of the Orthodox church need to take a look at themselves regarding their own culture and climate regarding sexual abuse allegations.   How we deal with problems that exist within the organization has bearing on whether sexual abuse is exposed and stopped when it is first detected, or whether the attitudes of the institution enable abuse clandestinely to continue.

What follows is a section from the official report, which does have application to and implication for church organizations.  We can substitute church equivalents for the university structures and personnel mentioned in the Report to get an idea how the church would look to independent investigators dealing with an abuse scandal.  The  Report says:

The avoidance of the consequences of bad publicity Is the most significant, but not the only, cause for the failure to protect child victims and report to authorities.  The investigation also revealed:

A striking lack of empathy for child abuse victims by the most senior leaders of the University.

A failure by the Board to exercise its oversight functions in 1998 and 2001 by not having regular reporting procedures or committee structures in place to ensure disclosure to the Board of major risks to the University.

A failure by the Board to make reasonable inquiry in 2011 by not demanding details from Spanier and the General Counsel about the nature and direction of the grand jury investigation and the University’s response to the investigation.

A President who discouraged discussion and dissent.

A lack of awareness of child abuse issues, the Clery Act, and whistleblower policies and protections.

A decision by Spanier, Schultz, Paterno, and Curley to allow Sandusky to retire in 1999, not as a suspected child predator, but as a valued member of the Penn State legacy….

A football program that did not full participate in, or opted out of some University programs, including Clery Act compliance. … the football program had not been trained in their Clery Act responsibilities….

A culture of reverence for their football program that is ingrained in all levels of the campus community.

Mr. Freeh in his verbal report also said the University’s Board, “despite its duties of care and oversight of the University and its Officers – failed to create an environment which held the University’s most senior leaders accountable to it.”  The University’s president “resisted the Board’s attempt to have more transparency.”    Additionally the PSU Board “failed in its duty to make reasonable inquiry into these serious matters and to demand action by the President.”  The senior PSU officers failed to “make timely, thorough and forthright reports of these 1998 and 2001 allegations to the Board. This was a failure of governance for which the Board must also bear responsibility.”

Again, we in the church can learn from this report.  All we need to do is substitute the word “church” for “university” and put the appropriate church words/organizations/personnel in the place of the university structures and we see how it applies to church administration.

The University’s fear of bad publicity was one factor that caused it to avoid exposing the scandal.  This is a destructive temptation that every organization faces:  people will think badly of us if they find out about the scandal, so lets minimize what people find out.  This strategy backfires when the scandal becomes known and people are enraged to discover that not only did the organization fail to deal with the scandal, but it also tried to cover it up.

The church faces its own particular complication in dealing with these issues in that historically, traditionally and canonically, the church invested power in individual clergy or hierarchs, rather than in church boards.   But church organizations which are incorporated in North America, also have to answer to laws which govern corporations.   These laws as pointed out in the PSU report place much responsibility not just on the senior officers of the institution (bishops or clergy  for example) but also on the boards (or councils) which have corporate legal duties to fulfill.  Any individuals or boards which have supervisory responsibilities within the institution are going to be called to account for whether they did the appropriate supervision.   This may in the church produce clashes at times about who is accountable for the failure to deal properly with abuse problems.   This is where the church must continue to work on having clear Policies, Standards and Procedures.  For though the church is not of the world, it is in the world and does answer to civil authorities in North America.

On all levels of the church, from parish, to the diocese, to the jurisdictional authority, officers and boards have legal and fiscal responsibilities to perform their duties in dealing with issues of sexual abuse and criminal activity.  The courts themselves and juries have become increasingly impatient with the failure of religious institutions in doing due diligence in investigating allegations, in meting out appropriate discipline, and in protecting children from abuse.  These are lessons for which all of us in the church need to take notice, and to exercise our appropriate spiritual and legal duties.  Ignorance is no excuse.

5 thoughts on “Freeh: Institutional Failure to Deal with Sexual Abuse

  1. Pingback: Orthodox Collective

    1. Fr. Ted

      It is getting harder for the church to ignore these lessons. We just need to remember Monsignor Lynn in Philadelphia who has now been sent to prison.

  2. Vatican officials have expressed concern that the church’s insistence on confidentiality in its treatment of priestly sexual abuse cases was seen as a ban on reporting serious accusations to the civil authorities. Early in 2010 Cardinal Claudio Hummes , the head of the Congregation for Clergy , finally said that instances of sexual abuse by priests were “criminal facts” as well as serious sins and required co-operation with the civil justice system. Italian academic Lucetta Scaraffia described the conspiracy involved in hiding the offence as omerta , the Mafia code of silence, and said that “We can hypothesise that a greater female presence, not at a subordinate level, would have been able to rip the veil of masculine secrecy that in the past often covered the denunciation of these misdeeds with silence”.

  3. Pingback: Blogs on Sexual Misconduct in the Church | Fr. Ted's Blog

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