NEWS: The Cult of Defense

Imagine an abused woman standing before you, perhaps still showing the clear signs of her injuries.

Envision a molested child in her place, facing a lifetime now dedicated to overcoming profound trauma.

Now consider what you would do if you had the power to confront and end the suffering of not just these individuals, but the innocent victims of similar tragedies. Your duty as a human being issues obvious marching orders. Every teaching of moral philosophy — every helix of human decency — demands you act to protect the victims and direct authorities to break the perpetrators.

However, men and women continually, actively and aggressively hide and protect serial abusers, all in an effort to protect organizations that include them as members.

The news cycle howls with examples:

  • Harvey Weinstein remains the bloated, scarred face of serial sexual abuse and the fuse that lit the #MeToo movement. His alleged conduct was not a secret in Hollywood’s halls of power, but the stars and studio executives paying their bills off his films kept their in-house monkeys deaf, dumb and blind.
  • Despite a 60-year prison sentence for Assistant Coach Jerry Sandusky following the sexual assault of multiple children and admissions of guilt for child endangerment from conspiratorial university officials, there are still football-obsessed students and alumni that defend Penn State and late head coach Joe Paterno from any accusations of wrongdoing.
  • Elsewhere in the Big 10, Michigan State paid out a $500 million settlement to the 265 victims of faculty member and USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar. — while Urban Meyer served a brief, three-game suspension during his final season at Ohio State for ignoring and misleading the public during eight years of alleged misconduct by former assistant coach Zach Smith. Still, football stadiums at both schools swell every Saturday — as though crimes and conscience should never be allowed to get in the way of pigskin entertainment.
  • While thousands of alleged victims continue to come forward around the world to accuse clergy of the Roman Catholic Church of abuse and molestation, Pope Francis and Vatican hierarchy ignore the accusations and condemn those reporting them for slander. Representatives of a religious organization pledged to love and care for the underprivileged repeatedly ravage the most vulnerable of their flock while accusations of coverups endure.

What are the psychological and sociological forces in play when tribal thinking of “us against them” defends criminal acts at the cost of the helpless? Is it all a matter of simple greed — of studios, universities and churches fearing losses on a balance sheet to such an extent that they can count how many legal settlements they can risk? Are these cases just empty or misled people wedding their egos to institutions so intimately that they’ll fight any allegation, even when proved valid in a court of law?

Walter Robinson is an editor-at-large at the Boston Globe and headed the team that exposed more than 500 cases of sexual abuse within the city’s Catholic Archdiocese — a major national story made world famous in the Academy Award-winning 2015 film, Spotlight.

Following the Globe’s expose, then-Cardinal Bernard Law resigned as the Archdiocese paid more than $90 million in damages and closed more than 60 area churches.

While the editor confirms Cardinal Law never agreed to speak to the Spotlight team, Robinson and his reporters knew they were dealing with men willing to protect abusers within the Church at the cost of young victims.

“Every institution that has problems of this fashion looks first to protect its reputation,” Robinson says. “The concerns for the welfare of children always finishes second. That’s true in Hollywood studios, at Michigan State and at Penn State. It’s the common theme that runs through every one of these cases.”

Robinson credits brave victims, the media and activists for exposing more cases and helping the public to become accustomed to reading such stories. As the shock value dissipates, people stop shying way from the ugliness and start taking on the abuse more aggressively. That can forge an environment in which those who suffered abuse feel more comfortable coming forward.

“When the Spotlight team did our work, we had hundreds of victims just from Boston call us within weeks of our first piece running. The two most common themes were that the vast majority of victims never told anyone what happened to them — and most of them thought they were the only ones this had ever happened to until they read the story.”

“Once they realized they were among thousands of victims across the country, more people felt it was OK to come forward.”

During the Spotlight investigation, the Globe gathered and reviewed thousands of pages of documents from within the Archdiocese. Robinson insists the one thread the reporters followed the most was a desire from within the Catholic hierarchy to keep the abuse stories secret so the standing of the Church would not be damaged.

“It wasn’t money they worried about losing. It was their reputation. In fact, to keep the abuse secret, lawyers representing victims who did not go to court received bigger settlements from the Archdiocese than attorneys who sued directly because their clients were unwilling to keep quiet. This went on for decades.”

Robinson acknowledges the irony of Catholicism authorities’ decisions. By obsessing on its image and refusing to confront these crimes directly, the Church lost scores of disgusted members, most of its political power and millions of dollars.

“In Boston, the Church had become a closed and cloistered society. It really existed for the benefit of the clergy and not for the faithful, especially the more needy among them — the children.”

Such cases span the globe and stain multiple industries. After more than 30 years as a model, agent, producer and music supervisor in Milan, Paris, London, New York and Los Angeles, Eugenia Melian chose 2018 to release her first novel, Wildchilds — using fiction to explore some of the ugly sexual underworld of modeling and fashion.

She echoes a sentiment of Robinson, agreeing that this culture of defending the indefensible grows from the leadership structures in large organizations. No one rises to the top of an Archdiocese, a university or a fashion magazine if he or she hasn’t put in many years of service and proved to be absolutely loyal.

“The fashion business is largely populated by kids,” Melian explains. “These kids are defenseless. It’s quite easy to manipulate and overpower a kid who has no choice. But, amongst the agency, the booker, the magazine, nobody cares. They stay loyal to each other and to the industry.”

“Let’s say you are a model, maybe 16 or 17. You’re working to help support your family back in the Ukraine. You’re going to have to do what it takes to get the job. Some male photographer says to you: ‘To get the job, you better do this. And, if you don’t, another girl will.’ If the model tells her agency about what happened, they’ll often decide it’s more important to maintain their relationship with an established photographer instead of just one girl. She gets fired.”

“What can you do? You’re just one young girl. You’re not going to sue anybody. You’re not going to take on a major photographer or an advertising agency. What recourse do these kids have against these people protecting each other?”

Melian adds that it takes scores of reported cases before institutions abandon loyalty and take action. She points to the well-publicized 2017 case of prominent fashion photographer Terry Richardson. After multiple allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior spanning decades finally emerged, many top magazines, designers and brands announced they would no longer employ Richardson — despite his prominence after photographing Oprah Winfrey and then-President Obama.

Comparing the case to Hollywood’s handling of Weinstein, Melian suggested the fashion industry knew about Richardson’s habitual actions and shrugged them off repeatedly. Just as it was just “Harvey being Harvey” amidst young actresses, it was “Terry being Terry” on fashion shoots. That was easier than caring about the victims. Then, once Harvey or Terry was no longer making the money for the industry he once did — or once the major player doesn’t wield the same power and influence — the respective industry isn’t as motivated to protect their former cash cow any longer.

“When Richardson released a book, everybody went to all of the book openings and all of the parties,” Melian recalls. “Everybody thought it was so great and they were all having so much fun. But, I remember being shocked by his images. Under the guise of art photography, I thought they were images of rape. Everyone knew what (Richardson) was doing — what he was making his models do — but none of the girls could do anything about it. And, the industry didn’t care until more victims came forward.”

“These things could’ve been fixed — five years ago, 10 years ago. On every occasion, nobody does anything. Does it take a Harvey Weinstein? Does it take something worse before big corporations and organizations take notice? They really only care when they start losing money — when people boycott.”

While Melian believes consumers can play a role in hurting organizations that protect abusers over victims, the pubic needs to be vigilant first and foremost.

While it’s never difficult to spot a metaphor describing the buildup of complaints that eventually bring down a Weinstein, a Richardson, a Sandusky or a Cardinal Law, Robert Weiss, MSW (a therapist focusing on intimacy, relationships, infidelity and addictions to sex and pornography) looks to autumn for his imagery.

“Cases like these are like trees as winter approaches,” Weiss says. “When a single leaf falls, no one pays any attention. But, when the tree is bare, you know there’s been a change. With abuse accusations, there’s still a clan mentality that’s part of our nature. We bond. We build community. And, we cover for each other.”

Weiss compared the Boston Archdiocese protecting priests, Penn State obsessing over its football prestige or Hollywood covering for Weinstein to the textbook actions of an alcoholic family. No matter how much damage or suffering the addict does to that family, its members often pull together in a cloud of denial to shield the addict.

He adds that larger organizations see peers gathering together to protect their tribal members, while underlings avoid reporting the actions of their superiors for fear of losing their positions or out of a desire to get ahead by playing along.

“In some cases, the same skill sets that might help a man become the head of a corporation — charm, manipulation, seduction, the accurate use of power — these traits can be very useful when persuading someone to engage in sex. So, you end up with broken men in protected positions of power who have no clue what they’re doing is wrong.”

Weiss makes it clear that familiarity breeds contempt for the victims. When a priest or a football coach hears a report of abuse committed by the guy he just had lunch with yesterday, it’s easy to brush the accusation aside.

“I think people make these cases out to be more extraordinary than they really are,” Weiss explains. “There’s nothing new about this behavior. There’s nothing unusual about his behavior. It’s being talked about now because there happens to be a group of men out there who got their asses in trouble. Now, we’re looking at it.”

Moving forward, Robinson of the Spotlight team believes only a continued shift in cultural values will stop further abuse cases on any level of society.

“There’s still this institutional pull for people to defend an institution they revere, whether it’s the Church or Penn State Football — whatever the hell a Nittany Lion is,” Robinson adds. “Fortunately, we’re seeing more vigilance now from parents, from the Church and from the public in general. Behaviors that were once considered semi-acceptable are no longer allowed because people’s antennas are up on high alert.”

“Most importantly, I think the stigma of ‘coming forward’ for many victims is still there, but that’s changing for the better.”

Perhaps, as society works on encouraging and accepting victims’ reports, all an individual can do is remain vigilant — making sure he or she never becomes that person who can look a wounded child or a suffering woman in the eye, only to turn away for the opening kickoff.

Note: When contacted for comment, the Boston Arch Diocese, Penn State University, Michigan State University, Ohio State University and the Big 10 Conference did not respond.