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Larry Nassar, Jerry Sandusky, and the Catholic Church

Joe Navarro body language expert; psychology

At one time it would have sounded like the beginning of a joke: What does the Catholic Church, Pennsylvania State and Michigan State University have in common? Unfortunately there is no joke here—there is only disgust. I say that as a father and one who studies dangerous personalities. The reality is that what they have in common is very disturbing. Pay attention because this is important. What they have in common is that they hired sexual predators and did nothing worthwhile to stop them from victimizing more children once the first allegation was received. That’s what they have in common.

We now know that for decades, thousands (not hundreds) of Catholic priests all over the world, used children, many prepubescent, as if they were sexual theme parks for their pleasure. And what did the Catholic church do? Nothing. No, that’s not totally correct. In many cases, they sent the priests to other locations, so they could prey upon a fresh batch of children anew—promoted others—and oh yes, the church worked stridently to silence the victims. In the terms of the religious, they went after the most godlike—the innocent children—by protecting the most Godless—the priests. Tie a ribbon around that and ponder it.

Then there was Jerry Sandusky of Penn State University. Enabled by a famous head coach, as well as pliant university administrators only concerned with the school’s image, plus a fawning but clinically gullible spouse, who looked the other way as Sandusky abused scores of children at home and in the shower facilities at Penn State University — what in law enforcement is called the “crime scene.” This is where, and please don’t avert your eyes, Sandusky pleasured himself by forcing children to perform oral sex on him among other things. No, I am not going to water that down for you — you the reader need to hear that. We do a gross disservice to victims when we merely say they were “sexually abused.”

Sometimes, society needs to hear the grotesque details, so we can begin to rid ourselves of religious, institutional, or collegiate affinity that yokes so many from accepting that a grotesque sexual predator violated a child – someone’s daughter or son, and in doing, so destroyed not just one life, but many.

And just as we put these infamous cases into our collective past, after someone finally goes to prison for abusing children, and we think no more about it, do we hear yet again of another predator and another institution. In this case, it is Dr. Larry Nassar and Michigan State University. Another sexual predator, hired by yet another institution, this one well associated with the US gymnastics, who used his position to serially rape girls. Yes, rape, that is what the law calls digital penetration of a vagina “however slight.” And that is what this disgusting individual did. And if this is beginning to bother you, and it should, before you turn away, read the words of the victims who trusted this predator to make them better and instead ruined their lives.

There are many things that are nefarious in these cases but what really stands out and it should make you angry, it is this: Predators, especially smart ones, go into professions where their victims will be easy to access. In other words, they count on institutions, to wit: the Catholic church or a university as in these cases, to attract and corral the victims for them—thus making predation easier and more plentiful. Yes, that is how predators think, I know, I have interviewed them. This is what institutions fail to get.

A sexual predator on the street may be able to sexually assault only occasionally and are in the end more likely to get caught. But an institutional predator, as those described above know they have access to many more potential victims; they will not likely be detected, and they count on blind institutional loyalty. Predators are fully aware that they will be insulated and protected, and most likely they will just be terminated. They know most organizations want to protect their reputation so not much will be done. How else could those Catholic priests, Sandusky, and Nassar have continued to prey on innocents with such impunity? Institutions historically defend the predator first and the victims last.

And not only will institutions protect the predator, they will do the dirty work by questioning the veracity of victims or their memory, or worse, they may decide to just silence the victims. As unctuous as that sounds, that is exactly what they do. Institutions and enablers culpably embolden predators and so predators continue to do more harm. Sexual predators are aware that people are forgiving and that there will be those that will side with them no matter what they do – no matter how ugly the facts.

Years of researching dangerous personalities has also taught me one other thing. Institutions and even some law enforcement agencies always think in limited terms – in other words, there is just one isolated complaint, probably not much more there. What they negligently don’t realize is that when it comes to predators, the debris field of human victimization is always larger, never smaller than they ever imagined. Institutions in particular want to fixate on the one case, not realizing that part of the pathology of the sexual predator is to prey upon many victims. When it comes to predators, the iceberg is always bigger below the water.

So not only are they negligent, most institutions are reluctant to recognize that they may have hired or are associated with a predator. As if their institution were somehow immune from these individuals. No institution is immune. The question is, are institutions willing to acknowledge even the possibility? Most I assure you are not.

There Is Hope

Before you begin to despair, and I have come close to that at times as I think about victims I have interviewed and more recently, as I listened to the testimony of the young gymnasts in the Nassar case—there is hope. There is hope because I see signs of courage, from even the youngest of these victims. They have shown heroic courage to confront these predators and to shame the very institutions that protected them. These young people have been exemplary in their stalwart testimony. Their words, their resolve, their tenacity, is what helped to put Nassar away and to keep other children safe. Because of them, a predator will never leave prison.

I also see hope because parents who all too often have been attacked, discredited, harassed, or even threatened, even as the victims have, have also demonstrated courage and resolve. They valiantly stood up to institutions, attorneys, and disbelieving administrators, and they too earned our admiration. Admiration, interestingly enough, is not a word any one of these institutions deserves.

And there is also hope because a free press, often working against public opinion, sought to tell those stories, not of the rich and powerful but of the victims and their struggles. Where would we be if the Boston Globe had not broken the case of the Catholic Priests or in the latest case of Dr. Nassar, the fearless work of the IndiStar. The press needs to be lauded for fighting for truth against power and against monumental institutions exposing their malfeasance or nonfeasance. When it comes to sexual predators, “fake news” may be their go-to phrase of convenience, but as we all know, those who claim fake news do so because it is news that exposes their complicity.

The #MeToo movement has shown that victims will not be silenced. Scores of gymnasts proved that. But there is another message here. Institutions can no longer do business as usual. There should be no pass given to an institution that puts the protection of the predator above the protection of victims. If they continue to protect predators as they have, then they deserve our scorn but more importantly criminal and civil scrutiny. Failure to act is no longer acceptable — it never was. And that sadly is what these three cases have in common: they failed to protect so many victims—so many children.   

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