Why Child Sexual Abuse Goes Unreported: A Sociologist Explains
“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.