The Catholic Church. Penn State University. Now, the Boy Scouts of America. There was a time, not long ago, when these institutions were bastions of credibility. Repositories of faith. Havens of trust.
I never was much for rose-colored glasses. Still, I am dumbfounded by the lengths to which officials at these institutions went to protect an image, at the sacrifice of innocents.
Documents were released last week detailing decades of sexual abuse in the Boy Scouts. There were accusations against 1,247 Scout leaders from 1965 to 1985, involving thousands of victims – 11 of them in Western New York. More-recent files remain unreleased.
In fairness, scouting officials often contacted authorities, and some perpetrators were prosecuted. But others slipped through the cracks.
By keeping secret the details of an epidemic, BSA officials fueled the cycle of abuse. The institutional code of silence came at the cost of the innocence of thousands of kids. Unbelievable.
There are, and were, good people at all of these places. Good people who covered up for pedophiles, who mentally made a molehill of mountainous crimes, whose inaction allowed more children to be assaulted.
All of which raises two monumental questions: How? Why?
The answers range from the manipulative powers of abusers, to the institution-protecting instincts of officials, to the delusion that any institution is capable of investigating itself.
“Good people will conspire to protect what they feel is an honorable institution,” said David Heffler, a Lockport psychotherapist. “They do a cost-benefit analysis in their heads and do not put enough weight on the victims and the damage done to them.”
Let that reflexive failing serve as a lesson for every official, from pulpit to neighborhood school. Any cover-up ultimately does more harm than good – to the institution you are trying to protect and, worse, to the kids you are responsible for protecting.
Heffler is a nationally certified sex offender treatment specialist. He has peered into the twisted minds of countless predators. Their persuasiveness is part of the institutional problem.
“Offenders as a group are very manipulative,” Heffler told me by phone. “They use those skills with anyone questioning them to diminish the significance of what happened. They will claim it was a mistake or a one-time thing. They can be very convincing,”
They are especially convincing to officials whose misplaced loyalty and bias make them more inclined to sweep abuse under the rug than to pull back the curtain on it. Which is – repeat after me – the reason no institution should be allowed to self-police.
“As long as institutions are not required by law to report every [abuse] allegation,” said Heffler, “we will have this problem.”
I hope that message gets heard, from every rectory to boardroom to principal’s office. Too many kids paid too high a price for official silence.