Events often occur in a series spaced out far enough that it becomes difficult to understand the comprehensive nature of the series. Often the space between the events makes it appear the events are episodic. Such is the case with sexual abuse in the United States.
Over recent years, reports of sexual abuse scandals in institutions have become commonplace. No longer is it extraordinary to read about an institution caught in a crisis of its own making, failing to protect the innocent; it is common. The numerous reports of sexual abuse scandals in United States institutions over the last several years demonstrate a pervasive and systemic sexual abuse problem. The number of people and institutions involved reveals that sexual abuse knows no boundaries, occurs in institutions of the left and the right, and is devouring innocent victims by the thousands.
To see the systemic nature of the horror of abuse, it is necessary to take a broad-based look at the reporting.
Sexual abuse in academia
While it was not the first sexual abuse scandal in academia, the Penn State abuse scandal still shocked the national conscience. In 2012, Jerry Sandusky was convicted of 45 counts of sexual abuse that occurred while he was an assistant coach of Penn State University’s football team.
The investigators argued the leaders of Penn State University, both athletic and academic, had a “total and consistent disregard” for the victims. Worse, they covered up the abuse. In fact, two observers actually witnessed Sandusky abusing children. In every case where there was an opportunity to get authorities involved, those in leadership at Penn State failed. Somehow, something was more important than reporting the sexual abuse of children.
Was the resistance to report the abuse borne of protecting coach Joe Paterno’s legendary reputation, protecting the reputation of the school, or to perpetuate a winning football program? That question will remain unanswered. What is clear, however, was that something was more important than protecting the innocent from abuse. So, the abuse continued.
In the same time frame of the Penn State scandal, another scandal in academia began coming to light. In 2012, a Baylor University woman reported she was raped by a football player, Tevin Elliot. Elliot was convicted in 2014.
In October 2013, another woman reported being raped by a Baylor football player, Sam Ukwauchu. Ukwachu was convicted in 2015 and received only six months in prison and 10 years’ probation.
In the aftermath of these convictions, Baylor commissioned an investigation into the problems on campus and discovered the school repeatedly failed to take appropriate actions. Further, the investigation revealed Baylor repeatedly mishandled reports of sexual abuse and violence. For Baylor University, a system in which allegations of rape were mishandled was the norm.
Over the last several months, Liberty University has become entangled in a sexual abuse scandal. Liberty is being sued by former students for creating an environment that increased the likelihood of sexual assault and rape.
ProPublica reports more than 50 former students and staffers claim Liberty discouraged students from reporting sexual assaults. When students did make a report, they were forced to admit they broke “The Liberty Way,” a code of conduct Liberty students are expected to keep. Failing to keep the “Liberty Way” can result in fines for a student, but leaders of Liberty, including the most recent former president, have been violating the “Liberty Way” for some time without consequence.
Liberty’s reaction to reporting of rape on campus is shocking. More shocking is the silence among the Falwell family. If sexuality is a gift of God to be celebrated only in marriage as Liberty believes, why would Liberty not take the sexual abuse and rape seriously? Why create an environment that blames a survivor?
Is “The Liberty Way” so sacred as not to prosecute rape? Why create an atmosphere where university leaders can violate the “Liberty Way” with impunity, while survivors get fined for violating it when reporting rape?
Are these three universities isolated events or part of a larger pattern?
Further investigation shows there is a pattern of abuse in academia. San Jose State has agreed to pay $1.6 million to 13 student athletes for mishandling sexual abuse complaints. In 2014, Tufts University was found in violation of Title IX for its handling of sexual assault cases. In May 2014, the U.S. Department of Education released the names of 55 colleges and universities under investigation for mishandling sexual assault allegations. By August 2014 the number was up to 76.
The revelations of scandals continue apace.
In April this year, Louisiana State University became embroiled in a scandal of mishandling sexual abuse and currently faces a $50 million lawsuit. Associate Athletic Director Sharon Laws alleges current or former members of LSU’s athletic administration and football staff conspired to retaliate against her when she tried to report former coach Les Miles’ alleged advances toward female students.
At Ohio State University, 350 athletes were assaulted by a doctor passing out steroids.
Taken in totality, these reports indicate academia has a problem with sexual assault, abuse and rape.
Sexual abuse in media and entertainment
Sexual abuse is not limited to academia. In October 2017, The New York Times published a story describing decades of allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. In the aftermath of the Times article, multiple famous women came forward to accuse Weinstein of sexual abuse, including Rose McGowan, who claimed Weinstein raped her.
In Weinstein’s defense, his lawyer said, “Weinstein did not invent the ‘casting couch’ in Hollywood.” In other words, Weinstein was comfortable saying he used his power to get sexual favors from young women, while denying rape. Sexual favors, then, were the keys to stardom.
Not only was this kind of behavior common, Weinstein’s abuse was well known within the Hollywood community. Because the abusive casting couch was well known and Weinstein was known to be a bad actor, one could expect there would be an intervention, but there was not. The abuse lasted for years. Many young women were harmed.
People with the ability to stop the abuse were willing to look the other way because something else was more important.
Weinstein is not alone among the abusers in the media. In 2017, NBC fired Matt Lauer after a female colleague made detailed rape accusations against him. Lauer denies the rape, but accusations of his sexual abuse of women consist of more than just one contested report. A 2017 article by Vanity Fair catalogues a pattern of abuse with his co-workers.
Here again, people within the organization knew. One former producer who knew of the events reports, “He couldn’t sleep around town with celebrities or on the road with random people, because he’s Matt Lauer and he’s married. So, he’d have to do it within his stable, where he exerted power, and he knew people wouldn’t ever complain (emphasis author).”
There is now a long list of those in the media who have been revealed to be sexual abusers. Along with Lauer, Roger Ailes of Fox News was accused of sexual harassment by Megyn Kelley and Gretchen Carlson. Roy Price, head of Amazon Studios, was accused of harassment by Isa Hackett. Julianne Moore, among hundreds of other women, has accused producer James Toback of sexual abuse. Journalist Mark Halperin is accused of sexually harassing many women in his tenure at ABC News. Others who have been accused or admitted to sexual abuse include Michael Oreskes, Louis CK, Glenn Thrush, Charlie Rose, James Rosen, Garrison Keillor, Johnny Iuzzini, Russell Simmons, David Sweeney, Mark Schwan, Eddie Berganza, Andrew Kreisberg, Jeffrey Tambor, and Kevin Spacey.
The question remains: “Why has the environment in which predators flourish not been altered?” The answer is chilling: Something is more important than protecting the innocent.
Sexual abuse in corporate life
Sexual abuse is pervasive in corporate life as well. Conspiracy theorists love to talk about the way Jeffrey Epstein died. More important was the way he lived. He was, according his criminal record and the accusations against him, a serial sexual predator of minors.
Epstein was a wealthy financier with connections to the powerful, including Prince Andrew, and a depraved taste for underaged victims. In 2008 Epstein was arrested for soliciting a minor for prostitution. He was convicted and served an 18-month sentence. In 2019, he was arrested and charged with sex-trafficking of minors.
Shockingly, ABC News knew of the sexual assault and human trafficking practiced by Epstein for years and did not report it. Why? A leaked tape indicated the network wanted to preserve its access to Kate Middleton and Prince William. Of course, ABC and the reporter in question released the expected denials — denials that strain credulity. For Epstein, underaged girls were abused for his pleasure. For ABC, truth and doing what was right were less important than access to Kate and William.
Sexual abuse in politics
In politics, stories of sexual abuse are legion. The late Sen. Ted Kennedy and former Sen. Chris Dodd were reported to have harassed a waitress by creating a “waitress sandwich.” John Conyers paid $27,000 to a former staff person who accused him of sexual abuse. Representative Katie Hill resigned after an inappropriate relationship with a staffer in 2019.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was arrested over groping a former aid, and the district attorney of New York has accused the former governor of harassing 11 women. Former presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg has been sued 40 times for sexual harassment. Former Speaker of the House Denny Hastert sexually abused students while he worked as a teacher and a wrestling coach.
While the public may be shocked by the news of a particular incident, or by the actions of a particular abuser, sexual abuse in politics is not new. It is normal. Seeing the powerful protect each other by willful ignorance or actual cover up is normal as well.
Politicians delivering for their constituents and their colleagues is more important than bringing these outrages to a halt or else there would be extreme public pressure for change.
Sexual abuse in religion
If there is one institution where protecting the innocent should be the norm, it is religion. Sadly, however, religious institutions have been among the worst abusers.
Dating back to 2002, the Roman Catholic Church has been embroiled in a sexual abuse scandal. Children by the thousands were being abused by pedophile priests. Worse, the Roman Catholic Church knew of the abuse and let it happen.
Why? Was it the reputation of the church the Catholic hierarchy was trying to protect? Was it that priests were well connected and their friends did not want them to face prosecution? Was it a theology that allowed for someone to continue to serve after penance, even if their crimes were severe? Where was the concern for the innocent?
Lest one think it is only the Catholic Church where abuse was tolerated, the Houston Chronicle has revealed that the Southern Baptist Convention has its own abuse problem. The Chronicle was able to identify 700 victims over a 20-year period it claims were somehow associated with SBC churches. Worse, when abusers were discovered, they often moved to other congregations to escape scrutiny and prosecution. Those who moved often abused in a second location.
The abuse in the SBC was not limited to small congregations in rural areas. Paige Patterson, prominent leader of the SBC who served as a seminary president, was fired for mishandling a rape accusation he was told about and for publicly gawking over a young woman in a sermon. The SBC Executive Committee of the SBC now faces a lawsuit over how it has handled an abuse accusation, and even to this date, the SBC is ensnared in a controversy over how to investigate its own behavior over these abuse scandals.
Sexual abuse in sports
The scandals do not stop with religious institutions. They continue to metastasize their way through the whole of society, including sports. The Washington Football Team has been accused of creating a culture of abuse and malpractice on reporting abuse and has been investigated by the NFL. While the NFL is keeping the data from its investigation of Washington internal, at least for now, it has fined the organization $10 million. Those who were harassed in the organization are outraged at just how light the punishment was.
In the NHL, the Chicago Blackhawks mishandled an accusation by a 20-year-old minor league player who reported he was assaulted by former coach Brad Aldrich. The accusation was made in 2010 when the team was in its first Stanley Cup final in 18 years. For the Blackhawks at the time, there is a clear reason to not act on the report. The life of the player was not worth as much as the reward of a Stanley Cup.
“The life of the player was not worth as much as the reward of a Stanley Cup.”
Women’s sports are not immune either. Athletes on the U.S. women’s soccer team and U.S. women’s gymnastics team also have been abused. In both cases, the abuse could have been prevented if those who knew acted. Hundreds of young women were abused, and some were even trafficked. Disturbingly, little effort was made to stop the abuse by people who could have made a difference. In reading the reports, it seems gold medals were more valuable than the athletes.
Sexual abuse is pervasive
Allegations of sexual abuse and cover-ups also have occurred in the Pentagon, the Boy Scouts, the United Nations, UNICEF, the World Food Program, the music industry, the technology industry, secondary education, elite prep and boarding schools, the medical community, Olympic swimming, prisons and jails, and service industries.
While it is true that rape, assault and abuse happen in individual contexts, for evil deeds to become systemic the perpetrators need complicity. It is the complicity of other individuals and institutions that have empowered these abusers to destroy the lives of thousands. In fact, the number of people abused in the horrors recorded here likely numbers in the hundreds of thousands.
The great German philosopher Immanuel Kant writes, “So act that you use humanity … always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means.” The multitude of sexual abuse scandals reveals a society where people are systematically used as a means, specifically for pleasure. The scandals also demonstrate that many people are willing to do nothing to stop it.
“It is only in telling the story that institutions and individuals can be held accountable.”
For the abusers, others may be sacrificed for their depraved lust. For the complicit individuals and institutions, others may be sacrificed for a conference championship, a gold medal, a pristine reputation, a paycheck.
The U.S. is experiencing a torrent of reports of sexual abuse. This torrent likely will not cease for some time. In fact, it is needed. It is only in telling the story that institutions and individuals can be held accountable.
If God intends to work justice for the countless survivors in this life, then fear is the only appropriate response. The torrent of reports, as nauseating and horrifying as it is, is not justice. It is just the reckoning.
Layne Wallace serves as senior pastor of Rosemary Baptist Church, Roanoke Rapids, N.C., and is author of Karl Barth’s Concept of Nothingness: A Critical Evaluation.
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Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals, trans. Thomas Abbot, 2004. 66, Kindle edition.