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.

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

  1. BeenBurned says:

    Jehovah’s Witnesses hit with $28 million sex abuse settlement Oakland,Calif.-Google it.

    Jehovah’s Witnesses have many issues with sexual molestation of children.The religion and its members are more concerned about protecting the group image than the victims.

    TWO WITNESSES required.
    The Jehovah’s Witnesses require ‘two witnesses’ to a crime or it didn’t happen,you are supposed to ‘leave it in
    Jehovah’s hands’ wait on the lord.
    How many pedophiles allow an eyewitness?
    These people engage in a door to door ministry, possibly exposing children to pedophiles.
    The Watchtower corporation has paid out millions in settlement money already.

    Danny Haszard *tell the truth don’t be afraid

  2. disqus_OFFm1UJLD2 says:

    You did it again, Ms.Hamilton. Thank you. For a non-athlete you sure do hit the ball out of the ball park.

  3. Home > Criminal Law > Football, Sexual Assault, and the Web: The End of the … – Justia Verdict | says:

    […] Justia Verdict […]

  4. Kay Goodnow says:

    Bravo, Marci! Thank you for all that you do.

  5. PetrusRomanus1 says:

    Roman Catholic bishops and the pope who appoints them remain in steadfast denial of the clergy sex abuse problem. They still expect it to “go away,” leaving them to commence business as usual, again. And the bishops will not be won over by the ‘Net because they are still above the law and beyond its reach.
    Meanwhile, the faithful must turn to courts, prosecutors, lawyers and journalists for answers and directions. Keep at it, Marci, we SHALL overcome! Someday!!

  6. Julia Barrick Douglas says:

    Thank you for writing this informative article. My favorite line was: ‘No institution can expect to protect its secrets of abuse and assault any longer.’

    Watchtower: This means YOU!

  7. Darla Jean Wilkes says:

    The FBI investigates dangerous EMAILS but not the CRIME(S). Sad to learn.

  8. Bonnie55 says:

    At a glance what is wrong about the Jehovah’s Witnesses and their unique TWO WITNESSES take down.
    As a regular practice or as a deliberate subterfuge to cover up wrong doing they require the testimony of two eyewitnesses to every act of,civil,criminal,scriptural wrongdoing.
    The Watchtower Bible society leadership over extends the scripture at 2 Corinthians 13:1 (read it) and the two witness rule is selectively enforced with prejudice and favoritism.
    Example-If a favorite ministerial servant assaults me they will require that I present two witnesses to the act.If I do the same they won’t require it from him.
    This two witness protocol permeates everything at the kingdom from pedophile crimes to gossip backstabbing.
    Moreover-The agonized victims are told to ‘leave the matter in Jehovah’s hands’ ‘wait on Jehovah’ because ‘any day we are going to be in the righteous new system’. So villain perpetrators continue to carry on in this festering enviroment.The victim is made to look like an unforgving discontent.
    This is another element that makes crimes unique in the Jehovah’s Witnesses the issue of their apocalyptic dogma,any day it will all end and you will be in paradise.

  9. CarolynDisco says:

    “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.”
    Marci Hamilton

    How fitting in my view that Notre Dame lost last week’s championship game resoundingly. (Not that I actually expect any team to be exempt from similar conduct.)

    Does anyone remember Lizzy Seeberg?

    Mar. 26, 2012 by Washington Post reporter Melinda Henneberger

    “On her way back to St. Mary’s College from the University of Notre Dame, just across the street in Notre Dame, Ind., freshman Lizzy Seeberg texted her therapist that she needed to talk ASAP. “Something bad happened,” read her message, sent at 11:39 p.m. on Aug. 31, 2010.

    A sophomore in their dorm bolted from her study group after getting a similar message. When they talked a few minutes later, Lizzy was crying so hard she was having trouble breathing: “She looked really flushed and was breathing heavily and talking really fast; I couldn’t understand her. I just heard her say ‘boy,’ ‘Notre Dame,’ ‘football player. ’She was crying and having the closest thing to a panic attack I’ve seen in my life. I told her to breathe and sit down and tell me everything.”

    What she eventually did tell both her therapist and her friend that night — then
    committed to paper, in a handwritten statement she and the other young woman
    carefully signed, dated and handed over to campus police the next day, is that
    a Notre Dame football player sexually assaulted her in his room after two other
    students left them alone there.

    Yet Notre Dame police, who have jurisdiction to investigate even the most serious crimes on campus, still had not interviewed him when she committed suicide 10 days later — and wouldn’t for another five days.

    “He started sucking my neck and I started crying harder,” Lizzy wrote. “He pulled down my tank top by the straps. He slipped them down my shoulders and proceeded to suck and lick my right breast while holding me down on his lap
    by the arms. I felt his hands start to move down towards my shorts as if he was
    trying to unbutton them or pull them off. I was still crying at this point and felt so scared that I couldn’t move.”

    When the local prosecutor declined to bring charges, as expected in a case without a living victim, his press release made the allegations sound so tame: “specifically, the touching of her breasts.”

    All their lives, women Lizzy’s age have been taught to report unwanted touching. But after she did, the same friend of the player who’d left her alone with him sent
    her a series of text messages that scared her as much as the player himself

    “Don’t do anything you would regret,” he wrote. “Messing with Notre Dame football is a bad idea.” Over the next 10 days, Lizzy became convinced he was right about that. The player wasn’t hard to find on the practice field each afternoon, so what were investigators waiting for? It crushed Lizzy, said her therapist in Chicago, Dr. Heather Hale, that reporting a crime somehow made her a traitor to the school she’d grown up revering.”

  10. John Henry Kurtz says:

    Thank you.


  11. DFPierre says:

    For the truth about Marci Hamilton, please see:

  12. I believe the Steubenville victim was drugged upon arrival

  13. […] Writing for Justia, Marci A. Hamilton, a professor of law at Cardozo School of Law, argues that the Internet has helped put an End of the Institutional Cover-ups of Sexual Abuse and Assault. […]

  14. Lloyd Christmas says:

    sorry but before the good Prof starts comparing her kind to MLK lets look at some cold facts. She and other career advocates are not calling for truth and justice. not really. they want “windows” in current statutes so that she and her plantiff good old boys can make more money. a LOT more money.

    and if you are a male survivor of abuse reading this. be careful. very careful. you may believe this stuff and confront your abusers, start speaking out. like i did. then reality hits.

    the advocates may offer words of support but they will run over you to the 1pct of survivors they can make a buck off of. You will most likely loose friends family and even a prosperous career. like i did. then you will see too late that you were just chum for the big fish. so above all protect yourself. a message the advocates prefer you do not hear.

  15. […] but only after the online nudger Anonymous forced the facts in front of everyone, as I discuss in this Justia column. To protect girls and women, and to achieve justice, requires each of us to force ourselves out of […]