Revelations of Sexual Abuse as Harbinger of Change

An article in the New York Times a few days ago had the following headline: “Wave of Sexual Abuse Allegations for Private Schools in Britain” (3/16/14). On one level it seemed not much new – more revelations of sexual molestations. Specifically, more cases in which older men in positions of authority preyed on young boys who had been placed in their charge.

This sort of scandal has become by now familiar. Best known of course is the series of similar stories that hit the Catholic Church at the start of the last decade. Once it came out, courtesy of the Boston Globe, that the archdiocese of Boston had long tolerated or at least not excluded to the point of exile predatory priests, the dam broke. To this day the Church has not fully recovered from the damage done by priestly misconduct if not criminal wrongdoing.

It turned out – no surprise – that the Catholic Church was by no means alone in concealing the problem. Schools were, are, another repository of similar behaviors. For example, a scandal starring “Prep-School Predators” tarnished the well-known and highly respected Horace Mann School in New York City which, it was recently was revealed, had “a secret history of sexual abuse” (New York Times, 6/6/12).

One of the things that makes these sort of stories mesmerizing to many is the question of why now? Why after many long years of silence is the truth coming to light at this moment in time? The article about child abuse in British schools makes clear that dozens of men are only now “breaking decades of silence.” Similarly, a former headmaster was only recently convicted molesting some of his students – over fifty years ago. What’s with the time lag?

A British lawyer involved in one of the cases gave the answer.  “You had deference,” he said. He went on to add that in the past when teachers were discovered abusing their charges they were moved on, quietly. Schools like churches would do anything they could to avoid public embarrassment and damage to their reputation. And parents like parishioners either did not know – or they too would do anything they could to avoid rattling the relevant cage.

Now though we’re bolder and braver. Now people in positions of authority cannot count on our deference. This significant difference holds true everywhere in the world – except where it does not. If leaders threaten their followers they, we, will tend now as then to shut up.


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