Last Sunday, I read an article buried below the fold in the metro section of the New York Times about a high school football coach who abused his players over a 25-year period starting in 1966. Despite eyewitnesses and school officials who were made aware of the abuse, the coach was never brought to justice. He was feted in a retirement dinner in 1991, seven years before he died. A RICO case has now been filed around the circumstances at Brooklyn’s Poly Prep.
As the Penn State, Syracuse and Poly Prep cases unfold in all their disturbing colors, the list of bystanders keeps growing. By bystanders, I mean not just those who witnessed the abuse and did nothing, but also those who were informed or sensed something was wrong and still chose silence. So far the master list includes a district attorney, child welfare investigators, a coach’s wife, a myriad of school administrators and employees, campus police, multiple coaches, athletic directors, and at least one university president.
As a founding member of The Rape Foundation’s Men’s Advisory Council that supports the Rape Treatment Center at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center, I have the privilege of working with a group of concerned men on the issue of bystanders to sexual abuse. In our work, we aim to find better ways to reach the boys on college campuses who keep silent while a girl is raped nearby during a party, and the middle school kids who witness sexual harassment on the playground and say nothing. We want to teach them how to do the right thing, to speak up and intervene even when it is unpopular, frightening or un-cool.
And then along comes Penn State, Syracuse and Poly Prep and the powerful, educated, and respected adults who acted solely to protect themselves, their positions and in many cases one of their own. It makes me wonder how we even begin our work with kids. The fear of confronting authority, of being a lone voice against moral wrong, of outing a friend/colleague/partner/mentor is so overwhelmingly powerful at any age. We know it from ourselves, our offices, our places of worship, and now our schools.
Despite the pervasive silence and complicity surrounding these cases, there appears to be an opportunity in our fight against silence. A national nerve has clearly been struck, at least for now. Something structural in our society and institutions has been uncovered.
So what do we do? We speak out and we intervene. We do it not just in the face of injustice the moment we see it, but we do it in the shadow of what will come down the road. We speak forcefully to the people in power at the institutions we support and inhabit about their responsibility to challenge the culture of power (even if they built it), about their policies and programs that breed this kind of negligence, about the necessity of continuous training to insure that this kind of incident doesn’t happen in their back yard. To our friends, neighbors, relatives, spouses and anyone who will listen, we say loud and clear that speaking up is more than a legal obligation – it is our moral duty as human beings. And to our children, we pour our hearts into teaching them through words and example. It is this last piece that is essential if we want to evolve the epidemic of silence and inaction out of our society.
It is clear that the legal minimums of reporting abuse are not enough and should be raised. In addition, as a society, we need to hold the silent bystanders morally accountable for their inaction, and not just those who have a legal mandate to protect children. And we need to support, reward and honor those who stand up and take action.
As more of these stories come to light, our hope is that victims and bystanders, past and future, will be emboldened to speak out to help shatter the institutional incubators of sexual abuse that exist all around us. For the rest of us watching from the sidelines, it is our time to find the conviction and assume the responsibility to get involved in solving the problems of silence and inaction in our communities.
A “moment of silence” opened Penn State’s first football game after the Sandusky case was reported. The sports reporters reflected on the communal sadness and then cut to the highlights. No one said that silence was the wrong message. It is time for us all to speak up and intervene when we witness, hear about, or sense the possibility of any form of sexual abuse.
Stephen Grynberg is a Founding Member of the Men’s Advisory Council to the Rape Foundation and The Rape Treatment Center at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center.