An overarching theory of sexual abuse scandals

Ross Douthat in the New York Times presents a compelling theory about the waves of sexual abuse scandals, from Roman Catholicism to Rolf Harris to Rotherham. Remember that these scandals are scandalous precisely because their perpetrators all got away with rape and abuse for long periods of time:

[I]nstead of looking for ideological vindication in these stories, it’s better to draw a general lesson. Show me what a culture values, prizes, puts on a pedestal, and I’ll tell you who is likely to get away with rape.

In Catholic Boston or Catholic Ireland, that meant men robed in the vestments of the church.

In Joe Paterno’s pigskin-mad Happy Valley, it meant a beloved football coach.

In status-conscious, education-obsessed Manhattan, it meant charismatic teachers at an elite private school.

In Hollywood and the wider culture industry — still the great undiscovered country of sexual exploitation, I suspect — it has often meant the famous and talented, from Roman Polanski to the BBC’s Jimmy Savile, robed in the authority of their celebrity and art.

And in Rotherham, it meant men whose ethnic and religious background made them seem politically untouchable, and whose victims belonged to a class that both liberal and conservative elements in British society regard with condescension or contempt.

The point is that as a society changes, as what’s held sacred and who’s empowered shifts, so do the paths through which evil enters in, the prejudices and blind spots it exploits.

So don’t expect tomorrow’s predators to look like yesterday’s. Don’t expect them to look like the figures your ideology or philosophy or faith would lead you to associate with exploitation.

Expect them, instead, to look like the people whom you yourself would be most likely to respect, most afraid to challenge publicly, or least eager to vilify and hate.

About David Walker

David Walker runs editorial consultancy Shorewalker DMS (shorewalker.net), editing and advising business and government on reports and other editorial content. David has previously edited Acuity magazine and the award-winning INTHEBLACK business magazine, been chief operating officer of online publisher WorkDay Media, held policy and communications roles at the Committee for Economic Development of Australia and the Business Council of Australia and run the website for online finance start-up eChoice. He has qualifications in law and corporate finance. He has written on economics, business and public policy from Melbourne, Adelaide and the Canberra Press Gallery.
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john Walker
john Walker(@johnrwalker)
7 years ago

Would add also look to situations where bullying is easy to do and rarely challenged.

Patrick
Patrick
7 years ago

I thought that Ross Douthat piece was one of the most interesting commentary articles I had read in a long time.

I have previously argued that the Catholic Church’s problems are the problems of institutionalised power and nothing particular to any religion nor indeed to religion. So Douthat’s argument was compatible with my priors, but even after trying to re-assess it in that context I still thought it was independently worthwhile.

Sancho
Sancho
7 years ago

Douthat is keen to find an equivalence, for obvious reasons, but none of the examples he cites included an international, broadly institutional attempt to hide sexual abuse on a massive scale.

Oh, and none of the other abusers cited their relationship with god almighty in order to groom and silence the children they raped.

Also, have the organisations involved in the incidents he cites just gone ahead and continued with the whaddya-gonna-do attitude of the Catholic Church?

john Walker
john Walker(@johnrwalker)
7 years ago
Reply to  David Walker

David something that is important (if possibly a side issue) – any group that is/was involved with institutional treatment of children, on a large scale, is going to be intrinsically more likely to have institutional issues than other, otherwise similar groups ..

Sancho
Sancho
7 years ago
Reply to  David Walker

Douthat’s remarks have value as examples and explanations, but they also have value as apologia, which is why he’s writing in the first place.

My experiences with Muslim communities have been less than positive, and the Rotherham account is appalling, but in Douthat’s hands it becomes another moment of hey, everyone does it so let’s just move on and leave the mother Church alone.

At this stage of the game, in 2014 with George Pell making truck company analogies to dismiss child abuse on an industrial scale, the choices for Catholic apologists are few: renounce the RCC in disgust, or never be taken seriously again.

In regard to David’s question, child protection and child mental health services come to mind. To my knowledge abuse tends to be low in those care environments, possibly because any aspiring abusers in the ranks are aware that they will be crushed without mercy if they offend, without a friendly bishop to quietly move them to another regional office.

john Walker
john Walker(@johnrwalker)
7 years ago
Reply to  David Walker

There was a serious sado-sexual teacher at Sydney Boys high for about 30 years, it only ended when he committed suicide in about 14 years ago. We all new about him, yet he was somehow protected for decades.

The article is not offering a ‘let out’ for the RC’s , rather it is a warning that no institution is immune .

Paul Montgomery
Paul Montgomery
7 years ago

Pakistani taxi drivers are politically untouchable, are they? How does their social status equate with Catholic priests? I think that is a false equivalence.

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
7 years ago

I agree with Patrick. I think the article is excellent.

And I think his ‘theory’ is compelling – though I also think it might be misleading to call it a ‘theory’. It may be possible to identify infelicities in the words Douthat has used if what he’s said is taken as a ‘theory’ rather than commentary, but the essence of what he has to say follows from the gravitas of insisting that there must be deep similarities, between the two situations. Surely that’s true?

An irrefutable theory of the equivalence of the two situations would be a deterministic one – if A then B. Whereas we’re dealing with history, with people and with indeterminacy. But I think the explanatory apparatus Douthat uses and his sensibility is the right one.

It’s also probably the case that it will be possible – perhaps relatively easy – to quibble with any set of words that he produces to refine his ‘theory’. But I love the deep symmetry he’s suggesting. It rings true to me. I also think it’s really worthwhile to focus on situations where things have clearly gone very wrong and a lot of people are having trouble, or have had trouble acknowledging it. Their trouble in acknowledging it is an insight into the significance of the problem. This is one explanation of my fascination for the tolerance of ‘theories’ in economics or ethics processes that are absurd on their face. They give us a chance to get something serious and indubitable under the glass and subject it to a considered gaze.

For me anyway the explanation behind the rapes and the possibility that they would occur on the scale that they did gets down to empty pieties. Pieties silence people both coercively and by inducing self-doubt and self-censorship. One might easily substitute Northern Territory aboriginal settlements for Rotherham.

Thanks David for pointing me to the article.

Mel
Mel
7 years ago

Paul Montgomery:

“Pakistani taxi drivers are politically untouchable, are they? How does their social status equate with Catholic priests? I think that is a false equivalence.”

The Jay report, statements by researchers who tried and failed to have the issue dealt with early on and the admissions of politicians themselves substantiate the “politically untouchable” thesis, at least in the context of sexual abuse.

Rotherham is a Labour dominated area with an ideological commitment to diversity and multi-culturalism and Pakistani voters are a core political constituency. Labour had a vested interest in not alienating the core by “rocking the boat”.

Denis McShane, the former Labour MP for Rotherham who was aware of ““the oppression of women within bits of the Muslim community in Britain” said:

Perhaps yes, as a true Guardian reader, and liberal leftie, I suppose I didn’t want to raise that too hard.

Also note this:

A researcher who raised the alarm over the sexual abuse of teenage girls in Rotherham more than a decade ago was sent on a ‘ethnicity and diversity course’ by child protection bosses who refused to act on her evidence.
The researcher, who was seconded to Rotherham council by the Home Office, was told she must “never, ever” again refer to the fact that the abusers were predominantly Asian men.

Speaking to the BBC’s Panorama programme under the condition of anonymity, the researcher said that she identified more 270 victims of trafficking and underage prostitution by mainly Muslim gangs in Rotherham.
But, despite being sent to Rotherham Council, the report – based on interviews with underage girls seeking help from the council’s anti-child prositution project, called Risky Business – was never published.

The Home Office buried a report on the scandal and senior police refused to believe earlier reports.

Paul’s reluctance to accept the avalanche of evidence about the nature of the Rotherham abuse case is a prime example of the political correctness that made 1,400 mostly white girls (and some boys) easy pickings for men whose culture is deeply misogynous and antagonistic towards non-believers.

Of course the other main causal factor in this case is social class. Pakistani men may trump poor white girls in the PC virtue stakes but I doubt that would have protected them if they had targeted posh private (or public in UK speak) school girls.

Paul Montgomery
Paul Montgomery
7 years ago
Reply to  Mel

Paul’s reluctance to accept the avalanche of evidence about the nature of the Rotherham abuse case is a prime example of the political correctness that made 1,400 mostly white girls (and some boys) easy pickings for men whose culture is deeply misogynous and antagonistic towards non-believers.

Mel, you are imputing motives to me which do not exist. I am not questioning the evidence. I am questioning whether it is appropriate to accept the explanations of those complicit in the cover up that “political correctness” is to blame for their incompetence.

You are giving in to their weak “society is to blame” bulldust. They are in positions of authority tasked to root out exactly this sort of thing, their job description is that they are supposed to rise above such petty concerns. These are police matters, and should have been dealt with by local police. This is a failure of police procedure due to incompetent management.

You could just as easily blame Christian culture for misogyny and antagonism towards those not on the same socio-economic rung, as seems to be the case in the attitudes of police towards the victims. The element of class in what has happened to the victims seems to me to be stronger than religion, with gender trumping all as it usually does in rape cases.

Mel
Mel
7 years ago

Your argument doesn’t make any sense, Paul. Also note that I mention culture as a causal factor rather than religion.

I found this gem on the BBC site regarding another Pakistani grooming case (in Rochdale) from 2012.

A Muslim community leader has said there is a “problem” of British Pakistani men thinking “white girls are worthless and can be abused”.

The snivelling local Labour MP with a core Pakistani constituency to appease wasn’t amused:

Mr Vaz, chairman of the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee and Labour MP for Leicester East, said the root causes of the abuse of young girls needed to be addressed but that investigations must not focus on the ethnic origin, religion or geographical location of those involved.

It is painfully obvious that Labour politicians and the wider left-liberal establishment including the media, welfare agencies, local councils and senior police had an ideological predisposition that precluded any possibility of proper action in these cases.

In the last few days a couple of other prominent Pakistani Muslims have noted that many Pakistanis both male and female, view white folk and in particular white woman as worthless human garbage. Even the Guardian has published such an opinion.

conrad
conrad
7 years ago

I think you need to add another angle to that of Douthat — he’s basically trying to find what aspects of society allow people to get away with things.

What needs to be added is what the motivation of the predators are and how they go about their business, as they’re not a homogenous group. At least for predators of the under-aged, what you find is many go to remarkable efforts to get themselves into positions where they can do bad things and get away with it, which is is why they are so hard to stop — they spend huge amounts of time trying to gain the trust of groups, getting jobs where they are in contact with children etc. . This motivation really has nothing to do with religion, cultural norms and so on, but seems more intrinsically linked with the motivations they have (many apparently think they are doing nothing wrong and that society is just oppressing them by stopping them). This means they’ll basically try and target any area that allows them to get away with it, which is why there are now exceptionally strict regulations on groups that deal with children (like child protection workers). Some of these may be like Douthat suggests, but others will simply be holes in the system they have worked out. Thus you can’t just look at groups that get power over others as they will use any method of hiding the abuse too.

There’s probably a second group like those at Rotherham that are less deranged and understand that they really are doing something wrong and can just get away with it. I imagine things like cultural norms are important here in terms of how they see the victim and how they evaluate the trade-off between what they do and the chance of getting caught. However, I also imagine what is important here is just the ability to do the crime and get away with it, and thus if there were loopholes in the system that have nothing to do with those Douthat mentioned, they would also opportunistically take them. So it’s not just power relationships at play, it’s also how sneaky the predators can be.

Tel
Tel
7 years ago
Reply to  conrad

What needs to be added is what the motivation of the predators are and how they go about their business, as they’re not a homogenous group.

Not if you believe that species were created be evolution, rather than by a devine creator.

The evolutionary theory has it that sooner or later all niches get filled, so if an opportunity for exploitation exists, then someone will step into the position necessary to utilize that… whatever it takes.

Tel
Tel
7 years ago

Power corrupts.

If you keep walking down this street, you might end up somewhere near small government and decentralised power structures.

FDB
FDB
7 years ago

Power corrupts.

If you keep walking down this street, you might end up somewhere near small government and decentralised power structures.

The only truer thing you can say about power is that it aggregates and coalesces relentlessly and irreversibly.

Also, WTF?

How would decentralised power structures stop children being raped?

Tel
Tel
7 years ago
Reply to  FDB

If you read the article above, you will note that the problem happens whenever someone can achieve a position where they have sufficient power to be “untouchable”. For example, at Rotherham, some parents attempted to get their kids back and discovered that the police were in the business of protecting the perpetrators, which is kind of an insurmountable problem, especially for poorer families with less than ideal social standing.

Decentralised power would be a way of providing somewhere else for the victims to go. The “untouchable” status can only happen because of a monopoly power position.

Tel
Tel
7 years ago
Reply to  Tel

In a nutshell, decentralised power probably would not prevent rape, the first time. It would prevent the victims descending into a lifestyle of sexual servitude and repeated inescapable rape.

http://www.forbes.com/sites/rogerscruton/2014/08/30/why-did-british-police-ignore-pakistani-gangs-raping-rotherham-children-political-correctness/

Imagine the following case. A fourteen-year old girl is taken into care by the social services unit of the town where she lives, because her parents are drug-addicted, and she has been neglected and is not turning up in school. She is one of many, for that is the way in Britain today. And local government entities—Councils—can be ordered by the courts to stand in for parents of neglected children. The Council places the girl in a home, where she is kept with others under supervision from the social services department. The home is regularly visited by young men who try to entice the girls into their cars, so as to give them drugs and alcohol, and then coerce them into sex.

The girl, who is lonely and uncared for, meets a man outside the home, who promises a trip to the cinema and a party with children of her age. She falls into the trap. After she has been raped by a group of five men she is told that, if she says a word to anyone, she will be taken from the home and beaten. When, after the episode is repeated, she threatens to go to the police, she is taken into the countryside, doused in petrol, and told that she is going to be set alight, unless she promises to tell no one of the ordeal.

Meanwhile she must accept weekly abuse, in return for drugs and alcohol. Soon she finds herself being taken to other towns in the area, and hired out for sexual purposes to other men. She is distraught and depressed, and at the point when she can stand it no longer, she goes to the police. She can only stutter a few words, and cannot bring herself to accuse anyone in particular. Her complaint is dismissed on the grounds that any sex involved must have been consensual. The social worker in charge of her case listens to her complaint, but tells her that she cannot act unless the girl identifies her abusers. But when the girl describes them the social worker switches off with a shrug and says that she can do nothing. Her father, his drug habit notwithstanding, has tried to keep contact with his daughter and suspects what is happening. But when he goes to the police, he is arrested for obstruction and charged with wasting police time.

Over the two years of her ordeal the girl makes several attempts on her own life, and eventually ends up abandoned and homeless, without an education and with no prospect of a normal life.

Impossible, you will say, that such a thing could happen in Britain. In fact it is only one of over 1,400 cases, all arising during the course of the last fifteen years in the South Yorkshire town of Rotherham, all involving vulnerable girls either in Council care or inadequately protected by their families from gangs of sexual predators. Almost no arrests have been made, no social workers or police officers have been reprimanded, and until recently the matter was dismissed by all those responsible as a matter of no real significance.

That’s bad beyond what we normally think of as a “rape case”. That’s bad on a fundamental and systematic level. The sort of evil that only centralised power has the capacity to achieve.

paul frijters
paul frijters
7 years ago
Reply to  Tel

this one is difficult, Tel. In the Netherlands, rape was usually within the family and due to the power of the father and other senior males over all the females. That power was backed up by village leaders, church leaders, and the police, so things were pretty bad. Only now that the wider social norms have changed and the dictatorial power of fathers has been broken do we get all the stories of previous abuse.

The point of the example is that power was highly distributed and not centralised at all, at least not within the usual connotation of representative power (police/army). But power was centralised within much smaller units (families) and the representative institutions backed this up. You have precisely this situation now in many societies with strong patrilineal honour systems and you can bet that incest and rape is rife in those societies and that there is little we can do in the short run.

Funnily enough, the erosion of the power of fathers is essentially due to greater powers of the state: it has muscled out fathers and taken over their roles. In turn, the state has become more egalitarian, concerned with meeting the needs of far more people than just the coalition of fathers, and with lots of different sub-organisations to which one can complain.

So yes, the potential for evil that centralised power offers is bigger than in other configuration, but it seems that so too is the potential for good: centralised power that emasculates everyone else and that is itself full of points of appeal and internal checks-and-balances is the best system history seems to have come up with so far.

After all, what are we looking for right now for solutions? The state, once again, because we know the alternatives are not better. And we are not calling for the end of the state but for a few more checks and balances, like those Royal Commissions, ICACs, and what-have-you. Even more direct democracy, advocated by some to more quickly tackle abuses of power, is itself just a mechanism to more quickly direct the actions of the state towards the wishes of the population, not to do away with centralised power or the state.

FDB
FDB
7 years ago
Reply to  Tel

Where ‘else’ would ‘decentralised power’ give rape victims or their families to ‘go’?

You seem to be suggesting that a decentralised power structure would be less prone to capture by local forces.

This is a fundamentally incoherent thesis.

Mel
Mel
7 years ago
Reply to  FDB

Has Tel ever been even remotely coherent?

As Pinker points out in the Better Angels of our Nature, (a book with some significant weaknesses, I might add), rape, murder, you-name-it is the norm until Ceasar imposes order.

But maybe Tel should endeavour to prove his point by packing his bikini and flip-flops and taking a holiday in the self-governing badlands on the Pakistan side of the Afghan border …

FDB
FDB
7 years ago

Wait, I get it.

If power structures were decentralised to the point where the child had ‘power’ equivalent to that of the rapist, they could sort it out with scissors, paper, rock, right?

A fair outcome.

conrad
conrad
7 years ago

I’m with Tel on the importance of decentralized power structures (c.f., small government, which is potentially orthogonal). This is because there is reasonable evidence to suggest that in many areas, problems never get solved or are solved much more slowly in especially hierarchical systems because people lower down the chain realize blowing the whistle will doing nothing but hurt themselves (many people that work in organizations with uber-crazy authoritarian management would have personal experience of this). So you need systems where power is decentralized enough such that these things can get picked up.

For example, one might ask why no-one blew the whistle on this years ago? Presumably many people knew but most probably thought the consequences for themselves would be too big and no-one would give a shit anyway. Why hit your head against a brick wall? This is true not just of political things and policing but other areas like scientific corruption. With a more decentralized system, there is more chance to break bad links. This is why organisations like ICAC are really good, because they break central power down in areas that would otherwise be untouchable. Similarly, Royal Commissions allow the government to at least attempt to break down power in otherwise massively hierarchical organizations (e.g., the church).

Peter WARWICK
Peter WARWICK
7 years ago

I spent 20 years in the Australian military, a hierarchical structure with generally centralised power.

To rise in the organisation, one had to curtail any criticism of it. One could change some operational styles, and as long as one was successful, one could blow ones own trumpet. Change was accepted as long it benefited those above you (and in blowing ones trumpet, one always included ones seniors in the trumpet blowing) .

But to challenge ones seniors was a recipe for a slow career. Most senior officers surrounded themselves with Yes men. The last thing they wanted was some bastard pointing out their weaknesses and potential failures (quite understandable).

There is also very strong esprit de corps. A scandal was to bring disrepute to ones Corps or Unit. A feeling well practiced by the churches. Ones Corps or Unit was ones Mother, Father, Brother, Sister, Uncle, and Aunty – it clothed you, fed you, accommodated you, medicaled you, and nurtured you – to expose a scandal was to bite the very hand that fed you, and placed a severe risk on ones progression.

One group that is partially detached from the main block of the Oz Army is the Special Air Service. Operating quite independently, they are able to set their own standards, set their training agenda, and establish their own style. Consequently, they are far more effective than the main block of the Army. They also have their own way of dealing with miscreants. So they keep themselves fairly clean.

Mel
Mel
7 years ago

I think the incidence of rape and what consequences it has is more likely to be influenced by the prevailing culture than the particulars of how much state power is centralised or decentralised. Certainly in the Rotherham case, the very agencies of decentralisation, the local government and local police, inhibited rather than helped action on rape.

Rape will only become uncommon (or as uncommon as possible) once women are regarded as equals, have actual equality through equal representation in powerful and high status institutions, sex is no longer taboo and rape is no longer stigmatised.

I think FDB enunciated a profound insight when he said:

The only truer thing you can say about power is that it aggregates and coalesces relentlessly and irreversibly.

When state power is absent it will aggregate someplace else. In Ireland, for example, historically the Church right down to the the village priest wielded much power in lieu of the State. In Pakistani families transported to the UK, power has resided with the patriarch. Had did that work out?

conrad
conrad
7 years ago
Reply to  Mel

As I noted above Mel, you really need to distinguish between groups. Priests and kids are really different to other groups who just think they can get away with anything (there is scientific literature looking at pedophiles). So there is a big difference between what happened and who did it in the church versus rape in general. Who looks at 5 years olds and thinks that would be a good idea? These people unfortunately exist in all cultures across all SES levels. The main cultural difference is that some places permit child brides etc. and there are obviously differences in the structures set up in places to catch them in places that don’t. As far as I can tell, this group basically has their brains wired wrongly whereas some of the other groups are basically thugs abusing their power. The solution/causes of the problem with these guys is probably quite different to the other ones talked about.