A Culture of Silence


The turning point for the Globe investigative reporters in the movie “Spotlight” – the aha! – is seeing the pattern of institutional complicity that enables sexual abuse. Survivors telling their stories were ignored and suppressed for far too long. When a bigger picture emerges from similar accounts too compelling to ignore, we demand relief from the pain. Beyond the horror of the abuser is evidence of many others, hidden by embarrassed leaders who worked to cover up the crimes. Leaders who still work to enforce silence – the paradigm of adults protecting adults, not children. To confront the culture of silence, to refuse to collude, to overcome shame and fear, and to show survivors it’s safe to speak up, we now must begin to speak openly and join together to heal.


Truth Coming Out of Her Well to Shame Mankind - Jean Leon Jerome

 “Truth Coming Out of Her Well to Shame Mankind” by Jean-Léon Jérôme


Just as we now know of decades of abuse within the Church (and among religious groups), many of our private schools sadly share the same shame — the truth that refuses to be hidden.

Since 2012, a deluge of recent news reveals years of long-hidden sexual abuse of children in scores of schools across the US and more in Australia, England, Scotland, Ireland and France. How schools respond to the abuse legacy is a stiff character test for school heads, parents and alumni, amplified by the wealth and power of students’ families.

Consider the schools: Horace Mann (NY), Yeshiva High school (NY), Poly Prep (NY), Hackley (NY), Woodward (NY), Millbrook (NY), St. Francis prep (NY), Emma Willard (NY), Pingry (NJ), St. George’s School (RI), Deerfield (MA), Landmark (MA), Buckingham, Browne & Nichols (MA), Fessenden (MA), Brooks (MA), Park school (MA), Phillips Andover (MA), Exeter (NH), St. Paul’s (NH), Indian Mountain (CT), Hotchkiss (CT), Danville (CT), Groton (CT), Solebury (PA), Malvern (PA), Potomac (VA), Marborough (CA), American School in Japan.

Counselors call for transparency and openness today as necessary keys to healing. But school boards balk. Not everyone wants the full story known, as prestige and privilege pull both ways. In fact, concern for reputation and status was central in hiding the crimes when they occurred and allowing more.


How did this happen for so long in so many places?

As the stories emerge, one central theme is revealed and repeated:  survivors did make timely reports of abuse to school administrators. They knew. But those officials almost never informed the authorities, trying instead to cope privately. Often as a result, teachers went elsewhere without any comment, putting students at risk in other schools. Or abusers were warned discretely but allowed to stay. Or they were not even confronted at all. Either way the schools’ opaque choices had dreadful consequences. The silence enabled more abuse.

In deciding to prevent publicity or embarrassment, or put reputation before safety, school leaders discarded the only tools which could have prevented disaster. Administrators didn’t look for the other victims. That would have required saying too much to too many. They didn’t alert parents, even parents of the victims of abuse. They didn’t counsel victims or offer much help, fearing rumors or legal risk. Often they didn’t even document accounts that had been provided so there was no context when later reports came to new faculty and they were thereby discounted. Then, the risk grew of prior cover up action being stumbled upon by each subsequent report. And worst of all, they didn’t ask students to bring information forward – the confirming facts which if collected then would have limited the injury and number of victims — accounts which years later show repeated abuse by serial abusers.

Survivors thought they were alone. The schools wanted no headlines. The abusers noticed.

Preventing sexual abuse of students requires timely reporting by everyone in the community. But when the promise of “See something, say something” turns out to be “Don’t ask, don’t tell” instead, no one reports the warning signs and institutions fail children horribly. Further, when schools refuse to speak openly about abuse once they know of accounts, their silence re-injures survivors, undermines trust and healing and sends a deadly message to unspoken victims suffering alone – “We don’t want to know or help.”

“A vigilant school says, ‘We won’t let that happen’ and makes it clear that if adults in the school don’t report what they see, they may lose their jobs.”   https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/is-cleaning-house-the-best-way-for-schools-to-deal-with-sexual-abuse/2016/02/17/577eedb2-d29d-11e5-b2bc-988409ee911b_story.html


What creates or permits a culture of silence?


Teachers and bystanders are…

School officials…

The DA…


“This failure was colossal. It was nothing less than organized crime,” Mr. Vereb said. “There was no chance, if you were a victim, that you were going to get justice.”


“Silence sets in when the energy to guard the institution exceeds the concern for people the institution is supposed to protect.”


The system enforces the culture of silence:


Lawmakers want schools to disclose abuse:



Bystanders and survivors are confused

Truth seeking is dangerous. As much as we think we want to know, we have no real idea.  The stark surprise destroys ideals we had in mind and once revealed, they cannot be returned. We are changed. Be careful what you wish for. There are reasons truth is hard to find. We hide it away and settle for the pretense we dress up as more appealing.

When abuse survivors do speak up, we resist the implications, rationalize and look away. Do we still permit administrators to bury the reports, stall and cover up?


Is anything changing?

The administration at Exeter sent this letter to the community. Note they hired independent counsel to investigate, review policies and procedures, examine the school’s handling of the news, and they are looking at organizations to support victims’ needs. Seems there is a responsible playbook, after all, for responding to abuse legacies.


Lyn Schollett, executive director of the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said transparency is key. She said administrators at Phillips Exeter failed in that obligation after they learned about Schubart’s past sexual misconduct. “We think that once they knew about this, and he had acknowledged that he engaged in this conduct, that the school should have communicated in a forthright manner with students, faculty and staff.”


More than 40 survivors from St. George’s School have come forward about past abuse. They are now talking directly with the board chairman toward efforts to learn and heal, yet the school did not alert police or the DA when much earlier reports of abuse were received, even though Rhode Island has no statute of limitations on rape. “It’s disgusting,” (alumnus and former trustee) Dan Brewster said. “It was abundantly clear from the outset that the school had no intention of informing parents, tending to the needs of victims, informing law enforcement, of doing anything other than protecting what they viewed as the importance of the institution.”



DA’s and law enforcement show early signs of a shift toward prosecuting institutional enablers of child abuse – accountability for institutional cover up:


Schools officials are being charged for failing to alert authorities when they get timely reports:   http://www.wfyi.org/news/articles/2-indianapolis-public-schools-staff-charged-for-not-reporting-alleged-sexual-abuse

“Legislation being proposed in nearby Connecticut would bar schools from making secret agreements with teachers accused of sexual misconduct, and require them to disclose such accusations if other schools call for a reference.”


Connecticut law requires school staff and officials to report allegations of abuse, neglect and endangerment to either law enforcement or the state Department of Children and Families within 12 hours of learning of the allegations. State law also requires that parents be notified of such allegations and investigations.



The Attorney General of New York urges legislators in Albany to reform outdated laws blocking justice:



Either school administrators will realize they must alert authorities on a timely basis, believe survivors of abuse, adopt transparency vs. cover up, act with compassion rather than intimidation, and speak openly about abuse, or they will soon face the enormous backlog of cases they have tried to bury behind archaic statutes now being revised by legislators.  One way or another, truth is climbing out to shame those who were silent.

Investigating and understanding what happened in the past is to learn, not blame or excuse. It’s caring about students and survivors today. Prevention begins with understanding what went wrong, not who was wrong. To acknowledge the causes, educate the community, and learn from failing, there is no practical alternative.


Royal Commission:

“We need to move from an understanding of institutions as merely places where child sexual abuse may occur to places where the institution itself is conducive to crime. And if institutions or organisations are directly or indirectly responsible for criminal behaviour such as child sexual assault, the law should hold them to account.”


Martin Guggenheim — law professor and nationally recognized expert in the field of children and law — pointed directly at the very issue many governments and legislatures are now realizing when he said at the NYU panel on child abuse: “Why isn’t a school’s commitment to the wellbeing of its children something we demand? Why isn’t it a tort for a Board of a school to lie to an alumnus about past behavior? Who is worse? I think the denier.” Oct 21st, 2014:   http://ustre.am/_3FQVt:2npw