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In Colleges’ Handling Of Rape Cases, Echoes Of The Catholic Church’s Sex Abuse Scandal

Rich Barlow: "Universities would do well to remember how badly tarnished the Catholic Church was by its secretive handling of sex abuse allegations." (sea-turtle/Flickr)
Rich Barlow: "Universities would do well to remember how badly tarnished the Catholic Church was by its secretive handling of sex abuse allegations." (sea-turtle/Flickr)
This article is more than 5 years old.

Anyone who paid any attention in the last decade to the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal knows that one of the bishops’ biggest bungles was secrecy in dealing with predator priests. As recently as May, the United Nations condemned surreptitious transfers of molesters to new parishes. The moral? Cover-ups harm the cover-uppers, too.

One might think that universities, those repositories of PhDs, might grasp this lesson of recent history. Yet recent headlines about colleges grappling with sexual assaults on campus suggest that the culture of secrecy that permitted abuse in the rectory may have its counterpart in the Ivory Tower.

...recent headlines about colleges grappling with sexual assaults on campus suggest that the culture of secrecy that permitted abuse in the rectory may have its counterpart in the Ivory Tower.

Circumstances differ, of course. Pedophile priests used positions of moral authority and their followers’ inherent trust in them to turn powerless children into prey, while the alleged perpetrators on college campuses have been fellow students of the alleged victims. In spite of these differences, what unites the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal and the current campus rape crisis is the flimsy claim of confidentiality upon which both institutions have based their feeble responses. (I work for Boston University, and the opinions in this column are solely mine.)

Catholic bishops’ claims of confidentiality ranged from due process for the accused, which is a reasonable claim, to the need to shield the reputation of God’s minions on earth, which is not one. Universities’ confidentiality claims are rooted in a Nixon-era law, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which was enacted to keep student grades confidential, not to provide a smokescreen to obscure the facts in cases of on-campus rape.

In 2008, Congress revised FERPA in the wake of the deadly shooting rampage at Virginia Tech that claimed 32 lives. The gunman, a student, was known to his counselors at the school to have mental health issues. Government investigators acknowledged that a fear of violating FERPA (and consequently losing federal funding) may have dissuaded the school from revealing concerns about the student's state of mind. The FERPA amendment gave any school or person “safe harbor” from penalty for a good faith disclosure made in the name of protecting the health or safety of a student or member of the public.

FERPA came under scrutiny again in 2009, when the University of Kansas used it to justify withholding drinking citations issued against student Jason Wren, even from his father. Wren subsequently binge-drank himself to death.

Universities would do well to remember how badly tarnished the Catholic Church was by its secretive handling of sex abuse allegations. If not God’s minions, who, exactly, are universities trying to protect in relying on an outdated law for claims of confidentiality in rape cases? As the recent, damning account in the New York Times about an alleged attack on a student at Hobart and William Smith Colleges (HWS) by football players, it doesn't appear to be the alleged victim, whose identity was revealed to students in letters the college sent to dozens of students.

In that case, HWS cleared the accused. But the Times described a shrouded disciplinary process “with scant accountability and limited protections for the accuser or the accused.” It also described inadequate competence to investigate such serious allegations. In spite of the fact that a nurse found that the accuser’s injuries were consistent with forced intercourse, two of the three members on the college’s disciplinary panel did not know this. In addition, the disciplinary hearing was held before the accuser’s rape-kit results were made available. The Times also reported that one member of the panel asked the accuser whether the accused’s penis had been “inside of” her or whether he had been “having sex” with her. Huh?

...what unites the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal and the current campus rape crisis is the flimsy claim of confidentiality upon which both institutions have based their feeble responses.

HWS disputed “the reporter’s interpretation of events,” claiming to have expelled predatory students, cooperated with police and, in the case in question, extended the accuser’s appeal time from the customary five days to three months. But it didn’t challenge the specific instances of alleged mishandling laid out in The Times, citing privacy law.

The same claim of privacy came up when WBUR’s Deborah Becker recently interviewed MIT student Alex Burgess, who alleged that she had been drugged and sexually assaulted on campus. Burgess said she dropped her complaint out of concern about publicity and possible harassment by the accused’s fraternity. When WBUR asked MIT for comment, Chancellor Cindy Barnhart responded that stopping assault was a priority, but she couldn’t discuss specific cases—again, due to the privacy law.

Meanwhile, a federal investigation of sexual assault policies at 67 colleges and universities, originally announced by the Obama administration in May, is timely, if not overdue. The Times endorsed the federal probe, as well as the implementation of mandatory anonymous student surveys about sexual assault, which is notoriously under-reported on campuses. The next logical step seems to be a congressional overhaul of FERPA.

The exorbitant cost of college has many Americans doubting a degree’s worth. The last thing university presidents need is parents’ fears for their children’s safety on campus. Lowering a curtain over every aspect of sexual assault cases may engender that loss of trust. Just ask Catholic bishops, whose secretive approach forfeited the very faith they urged their flock to have in them.


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Rich Barlow Cognoscenti contributor
Rich Barlow writes for BU Today, Boston University's news website.

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