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‘Report any suspicion of the abuse of a child to law enforcement authorities’

‘Report any suspicion of the abuse of a child to law enforcement authorities’ November 10, 2011

Let’s turn to Penn State’s student paper, The Daily Collegian, for a summary of the scandal unfolding at the school — “Penn State President Graham Spanier, Head Coach Joe Paterno ousted by Board of Trustees“:

The Board of Trustees announced that Graham Spanier and Joe Paterno will no longer be employees of the Pennsylvania State University. …

The announcement comes five days after a grand jury presentment was released describing alleged incidents of sexual abuse by former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was released. …

Sandusky faces 40 counts on seven different charges stemming from incidents where he allegedly sexually abused eight young boys from The Second Mile program — the non-profit organization he founded in 1977 for underprivileged children — in Penn State football locker rooms, his home and other locations.

Thousands of PSU students responded by rioting in anger — not over the failure of school officials to report the alleged rape of young children to legal authorities, but over the firing of their revered football coach.

Something Is Rotten at Penn State,” Andrew Sullivan writes, with an appropriate heartfelt anger:

That the structure of Penn State – and its creepy Paterno worship — allowed this to happen is bad enough. That the student body would rather side with a negligent football coach over a raped child is beyond belief.

ESPN.com’s Howard Bryant (via) writes wisely of “Penn State’s failure of power“:

Schultz, Curley, Spanier and Paterno are unwilling to admit being blinded by the power of Penn State football. That power prevented other, less powerful people from coming forward. Their first, fatal reaction was the impulse to protect the program, keep it from embarrassment, to protect personal relationships and now what’s left of the precious, sacred institution.

The power of the names Penn State and Paterno were, it is now revealed through chilling grand jury testimony, far more important than the children now forever renamed Victim 1 and Victim 2. According to the state grand jury investigation, at least four eyewitnesses say they saw Sandusky committing inappropriate acts with children, and Sandusky admitted another to one victim’s mother. Yet an entire community was cowed by the power of the institution. The past several days at Penn State have been a case study of Joe Paterno and the failure of power.

For each expression of outrage, we’ve been here before with the failures by churches, police departments and teams. Somewhere, each institution committed the fatal mistake of believing that power was not a privilege to be handled with great care and humility but instead a license to be above trust. The powerful often have forgotten whom they are supposed to serve.

And finally let me recommend a column by someone I normally do not recommend reading: Southern Baptist Archbishop Al Mohler, who provides some wise, practical advice in “The Tragic Lessons of Penn State — A Call to Action“:

I discovered yesterday that the policy handbook of the institution I am proud to lead calls for any employee receiving a report of child abuse, including child sexual abuse, to contact his or her supervisor with that report. That changes today. The new policy statement will direct employees receiving such a report to contact law enforcement authorities without delay. Then, after acting in the interests of the child, they should contact their supervisor.

Mohler candidly acknowledges the way that churches and other religious institutions tend to want to handle accusations of abuse internally. He explains why that’s “both deadly and wrong”:

Any failure to report and to stop the sexual abuse of children must be made inconceivable. The moral irresponsibility that Penn State officials demonstrated in this tragedy may well be criminal. There can be no doubt that all of these officials bear responsibility for allowing a sexual predator to continue his attacks.

What about churches, Christian institutions, and Christian schools? The Penn State disaster must serve as a warning to us as well, for we bear an even higher moral responsibility.

The moral and legal responsibility of every Christian — and especially every Christian leader and minister — must be to report any suspicion of the abuse of a child to law enforcement authorities. Christians are sometimes reluctant to do this, but this reluctance is both deadly and wrong.

Sometimes Christians are reluctant to report suspected sexual abuse because they do not feel that they know enough about the situation. They are afraid of making a false accusation. This is the wrong instinct. We do not have the ability to conduct the kind of investigation that is needed, nor is this assigned to the church. This is the function of government as instituted by God (Romans 13). Waiting for further information allows a predator to continue and puts children at risk. This is itself an immoral act that needs to be seen for what it is.

A Christian hearing a report of sexual abuse within a church, Christian organization, or Christian school, needs to act in exactly the same manner called for if the abuse is reported in any other context. The church and Christian organizations must not become safe places for abusers. These must be safe places for children, and for all. Any report of sexual abuse must lead immediately to action. That action cannot fall short of contacting law enforcement authorities.

That’s right. And it’s good that it’s someone like Al Mohler saying it, as he has influence with a broad audience that’s not likely to be paying attention to Sullivan or Bryant or others like them.

(It also has implications that may go beyond what Mohler himself realizes, but let’s save that discussion for a later post so that the compliment I wish to pay him for the post cited above doesn’t become barbed or backhanded here.)

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