Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Protecting the vulnerable

Football coach Joe Paterno tonight faces pressure to resign because he failed to respond adequately when a graduate assistant reported witnessing one of the assistant coaches molesting a young boy in a university facility. Paterno did report the incident to the school’s athletic director, but, apparently, nobody took decisive action. Both the athletic director and a university vice president face state criminal charges over the incident.

As a Navy chaplain, people would sometimes tell me, in what the person considered to be an act of religious confession, that they had abused another person (child or adult) or that they were contemplating hurting another or even themselves. Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice and often the polity of the Episcopal Church, I had three options. The first, do nothing, was unacceptable to me. Hurting other people is wrong; allowing others to harm the vulnerable is also wrong. Furthermore, in the latter years of my ministry, state law often made it a crime for clergy to fail to report ongoing abuse.

The second option, violate the person’s confidentiality, was also unacceptable. The person had come to me in trust. Breaking that trust would violate my moral obligations, breaking that trust would violate the person who had come to me for help, and breaking that trust would, as word spread to others, limit my ability to help other people.

The third option, stay with the person until I could persuade her/him to get the appropriate assistance, was the only good option I had. I consistently chose this option. I found that what mentors had told me was correct: the person who came to confess an ongoing problem was really seeking help in dealing with the problem. Persuading the person to take the next step might require several hours, much patience, and even more caring, but I, like my mentors, found that I was always successful. In later years, I counseled chaplains who turned to me for guidance to adopt the same approach.

Football coaches have neither the same requirements nor expectations regarding confidentiality. Failing to protect the well-being of children with decisive action is inexcusable. Assuring the safety of the vulnerable is more important than winning sporting events, than career success, and even friendship.

Similarly, I have no patience for religious leaders who attempt to protect clergy accused of wrongdoing. Organizations that put their image ahead of the safety and well-being of other people have their priorities confused.

One of the battles that I consistently waged (and lost) in the Navy was for the Chaplain Corps to hold its chaplains fully accountable when accused of misdoings. Sadly, the Navy Chaplain Corps had had a long history of allowing chaplains accused of wrongdoing to resign in lieu of prosecution. That might have protected the reputation of the Chaplain Corps but did nothing to protect the people of the religious organization to which the accused chaplain returned as a priest, minister, or rabbi. Thankfully, the Navy’s policy changed some years before I retired; perhaps my voice in some small way contributed to that change.

As I have previously argued in this blog, the purpose of accountability is not revenge but to protect others from being harmed, to change the behaviors of the guilty, and to deter any tempted by similar behaviors. Organizations that practice healthy accountability build a more positive reputation than do organizations that live in denial, attempting to preserve a fa├žade of human perfection in spite of the pervasiveness of human shortcomings (aka sin).

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