Football, Sexual Assault, and the Web: The End of the Institutional Cover-ups of Sexual Abuse and Assault

Posted in: Criminal Law

This is the era in which institutions are learning that they simply cannot keep their secrets about sexual abuse and assault to themselves, no matter how hard they try.  The reasons for this profound change will be the stuff of sociology and history dissertations, to be sure, but we can also see, right in front of us, a primary mechanism that is spurring this revolution against the conspiracies of silence that aided perpetrators and endangered the vulnerable for so long.  As this means of effecting justice has prospered, the public’s outrage has increased, survivors have been empowered, and the pace of revelations has sped up significantly.

We are witnessing the end of the old boys’ network that treats women and children as expendable.  You know it’s over when even the world of football can’t keep its ugly secrets anymore: Penn State, Poly Prep, and now Steubenville, Ohio have faced, or will face, justice.  Men in power, including the mighty football heroes, no longer can feel confident that the victims can be intimidated or made to be silent.

In football, when the sport has gone wrong, the players and coaches have been treated not just as heroes, but as beings tantamount to gods.  In their twisted universe, they deserve what they take, because they have sacrificed so much, and the system around them covers up any transgressions for the greater good of the team and the community.  Until now, women and even children were expendable, merely the spoils of war for them.  (Current headlines have focused on football, but a recent alleged assault in the Philadelphia Four Seasons Hotel by a professional basketball player is confirmation that this is a sports-wide issue.)

For example, at Penn State, hallowed coach Joe Paterno not only failed to take action to protect children from the predatory Jerry Sandusky, but also allegedly gave players accused of sexual misconduct a pass.

Similarly, Notre Dame had not one, but two, players credibly accused of sexual assault on its national championship bowl team.  Neither is being brought to justice, because one of the victims committed suicide and the other was so intimidated by teammates that she was too afraid to press charges. Why would two alleged criminals be on a Notre Dame football team?  There is no requirement that the school permit them to stay on the team.  One might have thought that the Catholic Church had enough problems with credibility on the sexual assault and abuse of children that it would not want its signature university and its revered football team to reinforce its current image of callous disregard for sexual assault and abuse victims.

Suffice it to say that the bishops and university administrators continue to struggle with the concept that their sexual abuse and assault secrets are everyone’s business in this era.  Why are they everyone’s business?  Because the Internet has given victims a voice, provided critics with a platform, and created a means of collecting disparate data that, when brought together, paints the pictures of cover-up.

When the Internet was in its infancy, utopians hailed it as the next great means for ensuring true democracy and happiness.  I never bought it, because I knew that human beings would be involved, and, wouldn’t you know it, the Internet turned out to be the greatest invention for perverts known to humankind.  But, thankfully, it has also become a remarkable tool for ending the cover-up of sexual assault and abuse in every institution, organization, and community.

How the Internet Has Broken Down the Institutional Paradigm of Secrecy About Sexual Assault and Abuse by Insiders

In Steubenville, Ohio, recently, the storied high school football team apparently had a raucous party during which a drunken young woman was raped by team members, carried around unconscious by her ankles and wrists, and even urinated upon.  It was a despicable, debauched, and disgusting display of youthful stupidity and evil.

Two boys were charged with crimes arising from that party, and now face prosecution, but as a result of the reporting of Anonymous and other bloggers, it now seems apparent that there were more criminals at the party than just the two boys who were charged.  At the very least, it appears that there were others who were engaged in aiding and abetting the rapes.  The sheriff has so far eschewed charging more players and partygoers, but he is under attack as having done too little following the release of pictures, videos, and statements via the Web.  The message that there may be a cover-up going on in Steubenville gained force on the Web and about a thousand people arrived over the weekend to hold an “Occupy Steubenville” rally demanding better and more public accountability for the crimes.

Without the Internet, it appears questionable whether the girl or her family even would have known what really happened to her, because she remembered little after drinking too much that night.  For sure, those of us outside the small town of Steubenville likely would not have heard about the case at all.

But the Internet has not just been an “information superhighway” in this story.  It has also been the means by which survivors of sexual assault could learn about the inadequacy of Steubenville’s response and could demonstrate against it.  It is not just that we know more now about how we ought to process sexual assault and abuse cases, but also that the culture has changed so that survivors and their supporters can use what they learn and then take action against the injustice.  Sexual assault victims flocked to Steubenville to demand justice there, but also to show the world that no one gets away with protecting the sexual predators anymore.  It started on the Web but landed in the concrete, real world.

The Web also has been instrumental in the rise of survivor communities, from SNAP (the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), to Survivors for Justice (Orthodox Jewish survivors), to Silent Lambs (Jehovah’s Witnesses who are survivors), to an explosion of organizations catering to victims of cover-ups, as well as informal alliances of survivors who share nothing but a common institution, family member, or teacher who victimized them.  When survivors talk to each other and join forces, they increase the chances of bringing their perpetrators to justice, and of uncovering those in power who let the perpetrator hurt them.  This community often suffers debilitating effects from the abuse, both psychological and physical, which in the past precluded full communication among survivors from occurring, but when the Internet is available, the barriers to communication dramatically recede, and anonymity is offered to those who are not yet ready to come forward.

Again, the Web has not only furthered discourse, but also been the means by which the survivor communities have told their stories and changed public opinion.  The result has been legislative reforms, massive public education, an attentive and active media, and a growing body of knowledge shared by an ever-growing number of people.   We are dealing with a social movement equal to the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s.  We now can see that there is a paradigm of institutional cover-up, and have named institutions that stand in that line: the Roman Catholic Church, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jewish organizations, Penn State, Syracuse University, the Citadel, Poly Prep Country Day School, the Horace Mann School, and now my own employer, Yeshiva University, among many others too numerous to name.  At the same time, the paradigm is crumbling before our very eyes.  No institution can expect to protect its secrets of abuse and assault any longer.

We have far to go in protecting and outing the entrenched abuse that happens in the home, but when it comes to institutions recklessly endangering children, we are on the right path to truth and justice.

The personal images of this movement widely distributed on the Web are unforgettable and piling up:  The tragic, limp girl in Steubenville being held by her ankles and wrists; the extraordinarily expressive deaf victims in the documentary Mea Maxima Culpa, which I discussed in this column; the successful Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky being found guilty by a jury of his peers on 45 counts of abuse; and Msgr. William Lynn, former Philadelphia Archdiocese Vicar of Clergy, being led out of a Philadelphia courtroom to jail.  Each of these images, by itself, is breathtaking.  When they all appear within a year of each other, you know we are getting closer to the promised land.