Phillips Exeter Academy: What the Abuse Allegations Tell Us About the Nature of Sex Abuse

Phillips ExeterRevelations last month that students had been sexually abused at Phillips Exeter Academy, a prestigious New England prep school, in the 1970s and ‘80s have raised concerns about the safety of children in institutions of trust.

News about sexual abuse is not new.  The media has reported it for nearly two decades, starting with the Archdiocese of Boston priest scandal.  Since then, journalists have written about sexual abuse at prominent schools like Penn State, Horace Mann, Deerfield Academy, and the Hotchkiss School, not to mention public schools, churches, synagogues, and the Boy Scouts of America.

These institutions have been slow (in the best of circumstances) to acknowledge the abuse or (in the worst of circumstances) denied the abuse altogether.  They fear bad publicity; a decrease in enrolment, participation, or fundraising; and lawsuits.  They should fear all of these things.  The public has a right and a responsibility to take appropriate measures when institutions of trust fail to live up to reasonable standards.  When we stop trusting these organizations, society suffers.

Yet, in the intervening years since the Boston priest scandal, we’ve learned some things about this terrible phenomenon.  We know that sexual abuse isn’t about sex but about power and the misuse of authority.  We can and should perform background screenings on potential teachers, clergy, and volunteers.  But if we are going to prevent child abuse we have to do more.  We need to implement a system of checks and balances so that no one person has undue power or influence over a vulnerable child.

In her article, “Prep Schools Wrestle with Sex Abuse Accusations Against Teachers” Katharine Q.  Seelye recounts a victim’s description of the authority his abuser had over him:

Hawk Cramer, 48, an elementary school principal in Seattle who said he was molested by a faculty member at St. George’s when he was a student there in the early 1980s, agreed that the unfettered access to students at boarding schools can allow a pedophile to groom victims. “You can call kids into your home, you can be alone with them, and kids think you have control over their future,” he said.

And students are loath to report the abuse, at least in real time. “Students are embarrassed and under huge pressure to perform,” Mr. Cramer said. “They don’t want anyone to think they aren’t measuring up or that they’re a victim.”

Those who abuse power and authority are fueled by their intimate access to a vulnerable, impressionable population.  If sexual abuse of children is to be stopped, unlimited access must be restricted.  The Boy Scouts of America now have a “two deep” rule which forbids any BSA adult from having a one-on-one encounter with a young scout.  Before BSA implemented this common sense rule, or when it was ignored or not enforced, children were abused.  When one-on-one access to children is restricted or monitored by other adult peers, the opportunities for abuse are greatly reduced.

We can continue to punish pedophiles and prevent those with criminal backgrounds from access to our children but that won’t stop the problem of child sexual abuse.  We have to address the larger problem of access to our children.  It is time to act now.  All churches and schools need to adopt “two deep” rules.

Dumas and Vaughn Attorneys at Law has law offices in Portland, Oregon and serves clients in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and other states.

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