For over 30 years, I have consulted with regard to and studied virtually every type of crisis imaginable (manmade and so-called natural disasters, criminal, environmental, ethical, financial, PR, terrorism, etc.). I have particularly studied the general lessons that all crises have to teach. I want to apply a few of these lessons to one of the most egregious of all crises: child abuse.
Whether we are experiencing an "actual, real epidemic" of child abuse or because of the overwhelming presence of the media we are just more aware of it is beside the point. What is not beside the point is that some of the most important and highly esteemed organizations have not only engaged in serious cases of child abuse, but engaged in concerted and repeated actions to protect and/or shelter those guilty of committing abuse. These include: 1. The Catholic Church; 2. The Boy Scouts of America; 3. Penn State; and 4. BBC. To add to the list, recently, the voice of Elmo supposedly had a sexual relationship with a then-underage boy. As a result, he abruptly resigned from The Sesame Street Workshop in order to protect the organization from further unpleasant publicity.
In short, some of the most highly esteemed organizations and institutions have engaged in nothing less than the worst kind of betrayal of the public trust.
Since the cases are well-known and have been covered extensively in the media, I shall not bother to review the livid details. Instead, I want to cover what my years of studying crises lead me to suggest.
The first and primary lesson that it is never ever the case that no one in an organization knows or knew what was going on or occurred. Instead, out of obedience, misplaced loyalty, or fear, they are pressured to keep it to themselves. Or, if they do report it to a higher-up, they are assured that the situation will be dealt with firmly and promptly. When they see that nothing is done and/or that those who report it are dealt with harshly, they soon learn to turn a deaf ear and blind eye.
The second primary lesson, which is strongly related to the first, is that, no matter what the particular kind of crisis, the vast overwhelming majority of organizations cannot be trusted to monitor themselves. (This is one of the other lessons that crises teach.) For this reason, I insist in no uncertain terms that at their own expense organizations and institutions that involve or serve children in any way be monitored for any hints and possibilities of child abuse at least once a year by outside organizations specifically equipped and trained to do so.
I am extremely well aware of what I am calling for. It will not be cheap or easy. But then, it will cost substantially less that the cost of a full-blown crisis. (This is another of the other lessons that crises teach. Crises always cost more than preparation and/or mitigation efforts.)
To be perfectly clear, I am calling for trained interviewers to conduct broad open-ended interviews with a broad cross-section of the members of organizations to probe for potential cases and indicators of child abuse. Under no circumstance are the interviews to be designed to seek out and punish gays and/or consenting adults for whatever they wish to engage in the comfort, privacy, or security of their homes. It goes without saying that whatever the practices, they are not to be engaged in at work.
I am well aware of the response of civil libertarians to such ideas and proposals. For this reason, the individuals and organizations that conduct such interviews have to do everything in their power to respect and comply with the privacy of individuals. Indeed, to avoid their own crises, they must do everything they can to seek out and work closely with civil libertarians to design interviews that will meet their standards. Whether they can meet those standards or not, I still recommend that such interviews be performed.
As a social scientist, I am of course well aware that nothing is perfect in assessing the behavior of individuals and/or organizations. But then crisis management also teaches us that perfection is not the standard. Despite our best intentions, we can't prevent all crises. But this doesn't relieve us from doing everything in our power to lower the chances of crises.
In balancing the rights of adults versus those of children, I am obviously squarely on the side of children. Those who choose to work in organizations and institutions that involve or serve children have no alternative in my mind but to subject themselves to greater scrutiny.
Finally, it is to their benefit that organizations allow themselves to be monitored. How else can they not merely protect but ensure their reputation? If not, then they had better be prepared for severe losses in financial support and membership.
Ian I. Mitroff is an Adjunct Professor at UC Berkeley and a crisis management expert.