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Sexual Abuse and the Institutional Conspiracy of Silence

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The allegations of sexual abuse and surrounding scandal, resulting in the firing of legendary football coach, Joe Paterno, and the president of The Pennsylvania State University, Graham Spanier, and the placement on paid administrative leave of assistant coach Mike McQueary, highlights in clear relief an overarching corporate/institutional culture of silence and cover up.

Whether it be allegations of sexual abuse of young boys over a 15-year period by former Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky; convictions of sexual abuse on young boys and girls by priests that have rocked the Catholic Church; allegations of sexual harassment by Herman Cain, former National Restaurant Association CEO and current presidential hopeful, and reported NRA cash settlements to his female accusers; or the estimated one-in-three female soldiers who experience sexual assaults by their male counterparts and higher-ups within the military establishment, institutions frequently close ranks to protect alleged perpetrators at the expense of alleged sufferers. As they model a culture of conspiratorial silence, institutions send the defiant message that they care more about their institutions' reputations than the alleged targets of sexual harassment and assault.

On an individual level, this is also apparent, for example, in episodes of schoolyard, community-based, as well as electronic forms of bullying. According to the American Medical Association definition: "Bullying is a specific type of aggression in which the behavior is intended to harm or disturb, the behavior occurs repeatedly over time, and there is an imbalance of power, with a more powerful person or group attacking a less powerful one."

We seem to live in a culture in which adults often project the idea to young people that when they are the targets of bullying or when they witness bullying incidents, they must work it out themselves, and if they tell anyone, they are simply tattling.

According to bullying prevention educator, Leah Davies, however, a vast difference exists between "tattling" and "reporting." Tattling is telling or complaining about the actions of a person or group intended to get another in trouble. Reporting, on the other hand, includes the divulging of information when an individual or others are hurt, injured, or are being injured. It is something intended to help oneself or another person.

Dan Olweus, international researcher and bullying prevention specialist, enumerates the distinctive and often overlapping roles enacted in these episodes: the person or persons who perpetrate aggressive actions; the active followers; those who passively support, condone, or collude in the aggression; the onlookers (sometimes referred to as "bystanders"); the possible defenders; those who actually defend the targets of aggression (sometimes called "upstanders"); and those who are exposed and attacked.

Each day we all are called on to make small and larger choices and to take actions. At a homecoming dance at Richmond High School in California on October 27, 2009, for example, up to ten young men grabbed a 14-year-old young woman who had been waiting outside the dance for her father, dragged her behind a building, and gang raped her for over two and a half hours with approximately ten witnesses observing. Some even cheered on the attackers. No one notified the police. The perpetrators left the young woman in critical condition.

President Barack Obama, when asked about the events transpiring at Penn State, commented that: "We can't leave it to the system. We can't leave it to someone else. We must take it upon ourselves to protect our children."

So, which side are we on? This question brings to mind the truism that: "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem."

Today as in the past, no more spot-on words were ever uttered, for in the spectrum from sexual harassment to sexual assault and rape, there is no such thing as an "innocent bystander."