Both Sides of the Fence

A Tosa resident since 1991, Christine walks the dog, cooks but avoids housework, writes and reads, and enjoys the company of friends and strangers. Her job takes her around the state, learning about people's health. A Quaker (no, they don't wear blue hats or sell oatmeal or motor oil), she has been known to stand on both sides of the political and philosophic fence at the same time, which is very uncomfortable when you think about it. She writes about pretty much whatever stops in to visit her busy mind at the moment. One reader described her as "incredibly opinionated but not judgmental." That sounds like a good thing to strive for!

On doing the right thing

Penn State scandal, abuse, abdicating responsibility, mandated reporters

A few people are blessed with instantly knowing the right thing to do – and with having the courage to do it. I’m not one of them. Oh, I usually figure things out. But it can take time to sort and ponder.

So I have some empathy for the folks at Penn State who tried to follow the rule “Tell your superior and let the organization take care of it.” I can think of a half dozen times over 40 years in the workplace when I’ve reported a wrong or an indiscretion and hoped for the best, settling for a gnawing suspicion that the best never happened.

Of course, none of those cases involved seeing a child being raped or groped by an adult. That’s a case where even I would know instantly what to do: intervene to stop the act.

But I still might have made the next-step mistake of just reporting it to my superiors instead of going to the police. That’s what “they” – our teachers, supervisors, clergy -- even, God bless them, our parents – have told us our whole lives.

The lesson is to abdicate personal responsibility for what’s happening. Give that responsibility to a bigger, more powerful person or to an organizational machine. Government. Church. University. Business. Union.  Trust they will to do the right thing. Don’t act rashly or take risks. Value loyalty to the team and the coach above all.

As a teacher, I was a “mandated reporter.” When I learned that a student had been sexually abused by her father, my legal role was to tell the school nurse and let her follow through. I hesitated because the school nurse was not someone with much power or, I thought, much strength of character. Besides, she only visited once a week and wouldn't be back for days.

I ignored the chain of command. First I made sure the child was in no immediate danger.  I talked to the girl and to her mother immediately. It turns out that the father was long dead. The “incident” – let’s call it what it was: a reign of terror – had been handled more or less appropriately by the police and judiciary and the health and social service system.

Only later did I tell the school nurse. I suppose I could have been fired. So be it. But I wasn’t. I got away with doing the right thing.

Something higher than the law makes us responsible for those around us, especially the young and the weak. Consider yourself a “mandated reporter,” even if the law doesn’t say so. If you see someone strike, hit, push, or otherwise assault someone in your workplace, call the police. There’s no guarantee even that entity will “do the right thing,” but there’s a much higher chance they’ll pursue and investigate the charge. Filing a complaint also creates a record, the lack of which is the source of much ongoing pain infliction.

Where is the first place your heart goes when you hear stories of proven or alleged abuse? It’s a solid enough test of where you place your higher authority and how you’ll chose to act.

I’ll give the last words to Stephen Prothero, religion scholar at Boston University.

I do not know whether Jesus is a Penn State football fan. He may well be. But if he were here today, would he be laying flowers at the front door of Paterno’s house (as many students have done), or would he be seeking out the boys whose lives have allegedly been so irreparably damaged?

Would he be standing alongside Cain’s lawyer as he issues not-so-veiled threats against accusers who have not yet gone public with their stories, or would he be standing by their side?

In your heart of hearts, I think you know the answer.

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