Sexual Abuse and the Culture of Fear

It’s official: Bill O’Reilly is out of a job. After accusations of sexual harassment began to snowball against him in recent days, even a last-minute visit with the Pope couldn’t save his top-rated FOX News slot.

O’Reilly is the latest in a line of high profile cases of sexual misconduct, including those of former Fox News chair Roger Ailes, Uber, Choate Rosemary Hall, and Sterling Jewelers (owner of Kay, Jared and Zales). Unfortunately, the list goes on and on.

In most, if not all of these cases, the accusations betray a larger cultural problem beyond just an individual’s reprehensible behavior. Abuse or worse goes unreported because of a culture of silence and fear.

The story always seems to run the same way. Victims are afraid to speak up because it would rock the boat, harming their careers, socially isolating them, and causing themselves tremendous psychological pain. Other members of the institution turn a blind eye, because they say it’s not their problem or are unwilling to deal with the awkwardness. Victims remain silent until a critical mass is reached, when many finally feel safe to come forward. Then the evil becomes news.

How can we combat this culture of silence and fear? “The truth will set you free” (Jn 8:32). Institutional and personal transparency and accountability are essential to beginning to address this cultural problem. Institutions must adopt policies and procedures to address claims fairly and with concern exclusively for the wellbeing of people over the reputation or preservation of the institution. Responses along these lines are the common response after the scandal breaks.

Personal transparency and accountability is a less common response, but are just as important for preventing abuse. Men especially need to own up to their own weaknesses and impulses, and learn to deal with them in healthy, appropriate ways. These internal issues are not exclusively related to sex, but are often psychological and social, especially related to power dynamics and self-worth. While external policies and procedures can and should hold people accountable after the fact and disincentivize misbehavior, ultimately what is internal to a person is the only thing that can truly prevent abuse.

I don’t know if Bill O’Reilly is guilty of sexual harassment, but if he is, I hope that he might live up to his principles and be honest with himself at least. Especially as a Catholic and a self-professed defender of conservative “family values,” he owes it to himself, his family, his viewers and especially his victims to admit that he did wrong, that he fell short of his faith, and that he depends upon God’s mercy for forgiveness, healing and reconciliation. Only when we all are able to be honest with ourselves, admit to our faults and ask forgiveness, will we be able to build cultures based on mutual respect and dignity.

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Image courtesy FlickrCC user Justin Hoch.

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