Deinstitutionalizing Abuse


A school social worker called me recently. She wanted to ask me a question but asked if she could remain anonymous. She knew that I just published a book on the topic of abuse in the Jewish community and had heard me speak about some of the research I was doing at a professional meeting. What she went on to describe was unfortunately not unique. A student in her school had told her that one of his teachers was touching him inappropriately.

Initially she felt that she was not sure if she could believe him so she waited a day and met with him again. The child’s story did not change and had begun to be more credible to her. The worker wondered why the child did not inform his parents but that was not her question for me. As a professional she realized that the child’s story had to be reported so she told an administrator of the school.

The social worker told me that she waited a week and then asked the administrator if the incident had been reported to the authorities. The administrator told her, “It has been handled.” Finally, she got to her question for me: “Did I do the right thing or am I obligated to report directly to the authorities?”

Did Joe Paterno do the right thing? Did Mike McQueary, the assistant coach who as a graduate student at Penn State saw Jerry Sandusky in the act of abusing a young boy in a Penn State locker room shower do the right thing? They allegedly reported it to their administrators. How about their administrators, all the way up to the now former President of Penn State Graham Spanier — did they do the right thing? At Syracuse University did basketball coach Jim Boeheim protect his assistant, Bernie Fine, who was recently terminated for alleged molestation of at least three young boys?

It is a well-known fact that many people who are abused, especially in childhood, do not report their abuse to anyone. Often it is because of the fear the abuser has instilled in them as part of the grooming process that makes them vulnerable to being abused. But, in many communities, there are other reasons for not reporting. Sometimes it is because these vulnerable individuals do not even have the language to describe what happened to them. Other times it is out of shame that may be brought upon the person who was abused and their family by community members who hold the mistaken belief that issues of this nature should be handled internally.

When someone finally has the courage to come forward to speak out about being abused, their stories must be heard and handled appropriately. Slowly this is happening but not nearly enough. Most institutions, including Jewish ones, remain more interested in protecting their own status than protecting individuals from harm. So until an independent board or appropriate investigative authority is contacted, there is still no reason to believe that a report of abuse will be fully dealt with.

Institutions like the Roman Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts and a host of large social service agencies, as well as small private schools and summer camps, have institutional structures designed to protect their operations from all threats. Officials of the Church openly denied for decades the possibility that abuse was occurring. The Boy Scouts kept a file of abuse and abusers but did not act on it. Some Jewish agencies also deny and hide behind centuries-old dictates, disallowing the act of reporting unless a measure of certainty has been established. But such certainty requires independent investigation. All of this furtive avoidance of the problem of abuse is fallaciously designed to protect the organization at the expense of its own members. There is a form of cognitive dissonance that allows institutions whose members are so dedicated to their purpose — be it sports or religion – to believe they are invincible.

To its credit, Penn State’s independent board of trustees acted decisively on learning of the alleged abuse.

The Penn State and Syracuse incidents remind us that abuse can and does happen everywhere. Institutions that deny or attempt to sweep reports of abuse under the rug by handling the problem internally are only playing a deceptive game. Moreover, swift action is the only true way to respond to these horrific acts. Unfortunately, as we learned from an investigative report in this paper (“In Lakewood Abuse Cases, A ‘Parallel Justice System,’” Dec. 9) as well as from other recent investigations, there are still social service agencies that do not do background checks of known or possible offenders and only after the offender is arrested do they act. 

I responded to that school social worker by telling her that reporting to administrators is never sufficient. Handling concerns of abuse internally only gives an abuser license to continue the perversions. A report to the police or other legal authorities is always required. The process of weeding out abusers must begin before they are allowed an opportunity to enter an environment that provides them access to potential victims.

Dr. Michael Salamon is a psychologist, researcher and author. His most recent book is “Abuse in the Jewish Community.”