Why Child Sexual Abuse Goes Unreported: A Sociologist Explains

January 17, 2012 at 12:28 pm 22 comments

“Everybody likes to think they would be the whistleblower. What I told my class was this: Statistically, you’re full of crap.”  —Eric Silver

Of the 28 pages of essays we published in our January/February issue, which we devoted to the Sandusky scandal and its aftermath, none has received more responses than Eric Silver’s. Silver, a professor of sociology and crime, law, and justice, contributed a piece we titled “Bureaucracy, Loyalty, and Truth.”

We introduced the piece like this: “Everyone says they’d report suspected child abuse to the authorities, but most don’t. A Penn State sociologist dissects the powerful forces that prevent us from doing so.”

Silver’s perspective—based largely on his specialty, the sociology of deviance, and a class lecture he gave just days after the charges against Sandusky were filed—really struck a chord with readers. Because of the large response, we’ve decided to make the piece available here.  —Lori Shontz, senior editor

I teach a class in the sociology of deviance, and we were covering the topic of adult-child sexual contact when this happened. The students had a homework assignment related to it due the night before all this broke. It was an eerie thing.

I felt like I needed to say something in class—to put the crisis in a sociological context. Two ideas came to me—one is bureaucracy, and the second is loyalty.

Everything in our world is organized by bureaucracies. You go to the grocery store, and your food’s always there, it’s on the shelves—that’s a very complex task, and it’s organized by a bureaucracy. Bureaucracies are very good at complex tasks, because they break up those tasks into small pieces that individuals can be responsible for. We’re all familiar with that in our own work lives: If we run into trouble, we tell so-and-so, and that’s it. It’s off our plate, and we continue to do what we’re supposed to do.

In this case, I don’t know the facts any more than anybody else does, but it seems as though there was reporting upward, which most of the time you’re encouraged to do. The big question is: Why didn’t people follow up after they reported upward? In some ways, it’s not a fair question. Our job descriptions aren’t to police our bosses.

I realize that everybody likes to think they would be the whistleblower. They are the ones who would risk their job, their livelihood, their future, their letters of recommendation. This belief fuels our righteous indignation at those involved. What I told my class was this: Statistically, you’re full of crap. For every 1,000 people, you’re lucky if there are two or three whistleblowers.

It’s risky to be a whistleblower because it’s deviant. It’s a person who’s breaking ranks. Some of the studies show that if you look at the characteristics of people who will intervene to help someone else—good Samaritans—they have a lot in common with criminals. They tend to be physically larger, they tend to be prone to temper. The person who intervenes gets angry immediately when he sees someone hitting a child, because he’s got low self-control and he’s impulsive. So he’s the first one to step in. Yet this is the exact same person who will knock your head off in a bar.

And here’s the other thing: If allegations of child sexual abuse and rape happened 100 times a day, as bureaucracies, we’d be really good at handling them. We’d be efficient. We’d have procedures. The trouble is that complex organizations—not just Penn State—are not conceived to handle rare things, so people revert to how they normally do their jobs. The fact that responsibility is divided, it dampens our moral judgment. We don’t see it as our job to be policing and judging the entire enterprise; we believe someone else is doing that.

The real problem, I told the students, is that we don’t see ourselves as moral agents in the workplace. We see ourselves there to do our bureaucratically defined jobs. The lesson this brings to light is that there’s a huge distinction between doing what’s legally right and what’s morally right. I told them, “Look, you’re all getting your degrees from Penn State, which is a bureaucracy, and 95 percent of you are going to work at a bureaucracy. So which person are you? Are you going to be the person who’s going to do your job to the letter and do everything legally right? Or are you going to be the person answering to a higher moral authority?” That’s a distinction that this incident has brought into clear relief.

The second part is loyalty. You like to think of loyalty as a good thing. Is it? In other words, if you think of a force in the world that’s going to create goodness, uphold moral principles, report wrongdoing, make the world a better, safer place, is loyalty the thing you put first? Loyalty may be one of the most subtle undermining sources of morality there is.

I can’t think about the “how can this happen” question without thinking about loyalty, especially when you’re talking about a place that has such a strong, loyal spirit as Penn State. I would say the same if this were a military organization or the Catholic church. Loyalty predisposes people to collusion. When a family member is in trouble, what’s our first reaction? To contact the authorities? Usually not. We all know family is about protecting its own, damage control, and collusion. They lawyer up, hide the bodies, and destroy evidence. That’s what they do.

If you don’t understand that, you can’t understand anything that’s happened. Including the riot that got the media attention. The riot was like what a family does when it feels one of its own has been unfairly treated. That’s how I interpret the riot—coming to the defense of a beloved family member.

Because we’re a big bureaucracy, our solutions will tend to be bureaucratic in nature. I don’t know if you can address the problems of bureaucracies bureaucratically. It seems to me that the solution is almost spiritual in this sense: Can we teach the members of a bureaucracy or society that they’re not just here to fit in and be productive within it and gain credentials from it, but that they have to monitor it for its morality? Take responsibility for critiquing it, checking it? Can we see that there is a big difference between saying “We are Penn State” and saying “Penn State is us”? If we don’t change our way of being, I don’t see how anything can change.

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22 Comments Add your own

  • 1. richard  |  January 17, 2012 at 12:45 pm

    outstanding piece–well writen and understandable. Good choice to include.

  • 2. Ronald King  |  January 17, 2012 at 2:51 pm

    The whistleblower you describe is a generalization although, I do agree with you that they tend to get angry and respond with immediate help. Well there is a neuropathway within the amygdala which signals a fight or flight response and there is an area within the brain stem influences a freeze response. Social learning and genetic predisposition play critical roles in how these instinctive responses will react. It seems to me that fear was a dominating factor in this mess. A hero is still fearful but will act heroically regardless of the fear. Another thing that is important is empathy. Did anyone who knew about this alleged crime exhibit empathy? And what would empathy look like in its expression?

  • 3. Anonymous  |  January 17, 2012 at 4:32 pm

    As a Penn State alumnus I will be using this piece to defend the University and Program from now on. Thank you very much Professor. It’s great to see that PSU has such great minds molding the future.

  • 4. Kurt  |  January 18, 2012 at 1:53 am

    Its too bad our president and board of trustees can’t step up and defend PSU like this. They are too busy thumbing their noses at good PR forms thinking that if they make a couple pathetic TV commercials and ignore the media that this will all go away.

  • 5. DH  |  January 18, 2012 at 2:18 pm

    @anonmyous…Thanks for posting, professor. I will be using this to defend the systemic and widespread sexual abuse of thousands of youth by Catholic priests. Good stuff.

  • 6. Ronald King  |  January 18, 2012 at 3:05 pm

    DH. Good Stuff:)

  • 7. Mo  |  January 18, 2012 at 6:11 pm

    While I don’t have a PhD, this piece scares me. It is not based on the latest research, and I, for one, don’t buy it! Bullies do not actually have low self-esteem, but high self-esteem. Those that “whistle-blow” are also of high self-esteem. The problem here is that people did not do “the right thing” and it seems that the reason is, they did not want to be the one to shake the tree. Are you really telling me that Joe Pop has low self-esteem….I don’t think so. After being in the teaching profession for 30+ years, with a masters degree, I can absolutely tell you that loyalty only goes so far. I guess I am blessed to teach with professionals that would not only “follow-up” but take action for themselves.

  • 8. DH  |  January 18, 2012 at 6:59 pm

    @kurt — understand your anguish, but what PSU officials need to do is STOP defending themselves. They need to own up to the magnificent and horrendous failures that took place, acknowledge that University leadership turned a blind eye to awful, awful crimes taking place, write several, if not dozens, of large checks to the victims and move on. They more they try to defend, and the more the new president talks about the “changing the narrative” and “protecting the brand” (Brand? Are u kidding me? And here I thought it was an institution of higher learning, but alas, I guess it’s just a “brand”), the bigger the hole they dig for themselves.

  • 9. Rodney Wallace  |  January 18, 2012 at 9:46 pm

    Where is this “For every 1,000 people, you’re lucky if there are two or three whistleblowers.” from?

  • 10. Sarah  |  January 18, 2012 at 10:45 pm

    This is an perceptive article about how people “work”. I agree that most people feel like it is not their responsibility to follow up with their boss. As someone who has made a report for suspected sexual harassment against a co-worker, I can tell you it was not an easy thing to do. And my boss never told me what came of it and to be honest I wasn’t sure if it was my right to know. This is the trouble with bureaucracies. There is a procedure for everything, but we’re so unsure of how they work. They rarely get used and everyone seems unsure of how to act. Eventually I worked up the nerve to ask my boss, and she seemed surprised that I would even want to know what happened with the investigation.

  • 11. Anonymous  |  January 21, 2012 at 9:17 pm

    Professor, Thank you. Your article rings true. I agree that a large percentage of people will not be the whistleblower. Most people can’t even break up an argument. When things get ugly people walk away. And yes, bureaucracies define our actions. Thank you for your insight.

  • [...] Eric Silver’s article Why Child Sexual Abuse Goes Unreported: A Sociologist Explains has received the most attention for what it has to say about whistle-blowers, it also has some [...]

  • 13. donotjudge  |  January 24, 2012 at 12:42 pm

    Every situation like this has it’s own unique facts and characteristics and also personal feelings that we cannot possibly know: Fact: Joe Paterno only knew what Mike McQueary told him. He did NOT witness anything. He did NOT know everything that we all know from the GJ presentment nor did he know exactly what MM witnessed. Fact: Joe called his bosses – not just one, but two people to pass the information. What were Joe’s personal feelings – did he doubt Mike’s words? Did he doubt Mike’s motivations for telling him what he told him? No one knows. Fact: Joe Paterno knew JS for over 30 years. Joe knew Mike McQueary(at the time for about 10 – 4 as a player and then 2 as a grad assistant – Mike tried to play pro for 4 of those 10 years). There was a lot to take into consideration for Joe, but he went ahead and did what he was supposed to do. FACT: We all have the benefit of knowing way more than Joe did about accusations against JS. We know details in the allegations that are horrifying that Joe did NOT know. We need to take a hard look at ourselves – doing what it morally right is laughable in so many cases – for example – letting friends drive drunk or driving drunk ourselves. I’ve witessed verbal abuse of children by their own parents at baseball, football, soccer and basketball games so many times I cannot count yet noone including myself did anything let alone notify police. I just have to laugh at the moral judgement of the people in the US. A place in which all you have to do is open a Sports Ill. magazine or any magazine or look on a billboard ad or watch the commercials of just about any tv show to find pornography. Immorality seems to be the hallmark of free speech in our great country and that is sad. We can openly tear each other to peices in the name of free speech and there will be a line of lawyers 60 blocks long to defend us. It is sad. My suggestion to those who judge Joe Paterno’s actions – don’t until you’ve walked 1000 steps in his shoes and also have taken a long look at you’re own life and the moral choices that you have made.

  • 14. Bud '82  |  January 24, 2012 at 11:25 pm

    It is an interesting perspective that most people act in a bureaucratic way instead of in a moral way. I don’t think that we can say that all bureaucracies react in the same way, however. It is a common axiom in business that companies take on the personalty of their leadership. If the president and board of an organisation show that they care about morality so will their organizations. If presidents and boards respond to every crisis with lawyers and secrecy then they tell the people of their organization how they expect them to react.
    People should be able to kick problems upstairs and have confidence they will be handled morally. We Penn State Alumni need to demand this of our bureaucracy. We all thought “Success with Honor” was the University’s code not just that of the football program.

  • 15. totteacher  |  January 25, 2012 at 1:02 am

    I’m with Sarah (Jan 18). As a Head Start teacher who reports suspected abuse to Children & Youth Services through a supervisor (o.k. in Pennsylvania), I often do not hear how the investigation bears out. Due to privacy issues, (and the basic legal presumption of innocent until proven guilty), the reporter does not necessarily hear what is happening in the case. CYS interviews the child, the family, witnesses, etc and only proceeds if there is enough evidence. CYS is supposed to tell me just what I need to know (e.g. if the child is not to be picked up from school by certain family members) but I have had circumstances where I still see the (accused) perp with the victim. I am basically told the investigation is “ongoing”, and that’s all they can tell me. In the Penn State case it was a rape by a non-family member, so it becomes a criminal investigation. But as a mandated reporter, I still make the call to ChildLine (CYS) and they sort out whether it goes to law enforcement or not. Even if the reporter asked the agencies what had been done to follow up, I don’t think they would share any information. And I would assume if it were my supervisor’s job to report that it would be done as it should be. Call it a bureaucratic mentality, but sometimes we have to trust others in the bureaucracy and assume they are doing their job. Especially where privacy issues cloud full disclosure.

  • [...] Penn Stater article featured a professor of sociology and crime, law, and justice who stated, « For every [...]

  • 17. On whistleblowers | The Ethics of Cheating  |  June 30, 2012 at 2:12 am

    [...] who see something wrong happening in an organization will break ranks to speak out about it.  According to Eric Silver, a professor of sociology and crime, law, and justice at Penn [...]

  • 18. Brenda  |  April 18, 2013 at 10:52 am

    I was a whistleblower. It was very scary but I did it because it needed to be done and no one else would do it. There is always a price, but in the end I can sleep at night.

  • 19. Mike Sawyer  |  July 1, 2013 at 10:36 am

    What about the “silence” from the Gator Nation when the former-merchant-of-death-ex-tobacco-CEO Susan L. Ivey Cameron was installed on the University of Florida Board of Directors? She was once over the Asia market pushing her deadly tobacco on the innocent “Street kids of Manila.” Silence is Golden.

  • 20. Mike Sawyer  |  July 1, 2013 at 10:39 am

    Correction, Cameron placed on the University of Florida Board of Trustees.

  • 21. Ray Blehar  |  December 10, 2013 at 10:31 pm

    Unfortunately, the article was written under the assumption that the UNPROVEN failure to report allegation was true. I have yet to see CREDIBLE evidence that would lead me to believe that PSU failed to properly report this incident. Conversely, we have two PSU officials who believe they reported it. Is Professor Silver also assuming Gary Schultz is a liar because he was charged with perjury?

    I think history will show this article is a pile of crap. The PSU bureaucracy is guilty of a crime, but it’s something far worse than failure to report child abuse. Mark my words — people on the BOT are guilty of covering-up crimes. Not Sandusky’s — their own.

  • 22. Ray Blehar  |  December 10, 2013 at 10:50 pm

    I’ll add that the riot was about the unfair treatment of Joe Paterno, who by all accounts acted appropriately and was not facing any charges, yet was fired for unknown reasons on November 9, 2011. The riot had absolutely nothing to do with anyone’s alleged failure to report child abuse.

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