University Vaticans

Suzzallo Library, University of Washington, Seattle

What do contemporary American universities have in common with the Roman Catholic Church? Massive collusions and coverups of systematic sexual assaults and abuse of girls and boys, women and men. We have seen the accumulating evidence, what with high profile cases such as the one of former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University sports physician Larry Nassar who sexually assaulted at least 300 girls and young women. As Sophie Gilbert states in her recent article in The Atlantic, Nassar “did benefit from a culture that closed ranks around him and defended him long after he’d been exposed”—including by officials at Michigan State University. (Sophie Gilbert, “A New Film Reveals How Larry Nassar Benefited From a Culture of Silence,” The Atlantic, May 2, 2019)

But it is not only high profile cases that should outrage us and call for systematic reforms. There is a steady, almost weekly, string of news stories about sexual assaults on our college campuses and the egregious university culture of silence—silence and silencing (and further abuse) of survivors. Such silencing is not, as is often cited as an excuse, to protect the safety and reputations of the survivors and the perpetrators of abuse. Such silencing is first and foremost to protect the reputations of the universities in order to keep those private and corporate donations pouring in. More people need to understand this. More journalists need to call it out.

A recent and close to home sexual assault (and university silencing) was exposed this week by Seattle Times reporter Asia Fields. In her June 12th article, “UW finds star athlete’s sexual assault allegation credible, but athletic executive quietly moved on,” Fields tells of the 2017 sexual assault of Cassandra Strickland, a female University of Washington undergraduate student and volleyball player by UW senior associate athletic director Roy Shick and the university’s handling of the assault investigation. When Shick discovered the university investigation, he resigned and subsequently was hired by Grand Canyon University as vice president of advancement (he has now been fired). The UW internal investigation of the assault found “sufficient evidence to support the finding that Mr. Shick’s behavior amounted to sexual harassment.” But those findings were shared only with “those with the need to know,” which included UW president Ana Marie Cauce, the athletic director, and people in the university’s legal department.

The University of Washington legal department and investigators entered into a quiet settlement with Cassandra Strickland, giving her $20,000 for mental health treatment, but with the stipulation that she “sign a release allowing the university access to her counseling records to check on her participation and progress in treatment.” They also had her sign a waiver of any future claims against the university.

Seattle attorney Rebecca Roe, who has represented clients who were sexual assault survivors at the University of Washington, is quoted as saying, “I find that totally and completely offensive. The Catholic Church used to try to do that.”

The Seattle Times broke this story, resorting to using our Washington State public records laws to obtain the redacted University of Washington internal documents relating to this case. But also, Cassandra Strickland, the strong survivor, was willing to go on record with these powerful words: “My story is not unique. There are hundreds, if not thousands of other girls at other universities, whose stories are being buried to protect the reputation of the schools they attend. It’s a problem, it’s been a problem for far too long and we need to change that.”

Being a University of Washington professor, I am devastated and enraged by what happened to her. I also know it has happened—and likely will continue to happen—to many more of our students. For decades, I worked beside a faculty member widely known to sexually harass and intimidate our female students. Nothing was done except require him to keep his office door open when meeting with female students. I tried to discreetly steer young female students away from working with him—but otherwise, I felt powerless. And I was complicit in a university system that allowed the abuse to continue. No more.


Resources:

Know Your Rights: Sexual Harassment and Sexual Assault Under Title IX” by the American Association of University Women.

End Rape on Campus

And, from the Seattle Times article: “If you have experienced sexual assault and need support, you can call the 24-hour National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (800-656-4673). There is also an online chat option.

Survivors in King County can call the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center’s 24-hour Resource Line at 888-99-VOICE (888-998-6423) or visit www.kcsarc.org/gethelp.”

Speaking Truth to Power: Consequences

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Detail from “Chaos” 2016, mixed media/Josephine Ensign

Speaking truth to power always has consequences for the speaker. It is dangerous. That is part of the definition of parrhesia, the ancient Greek word and concept of free or bold speech. There is an ancient Greek word for someone who speaks truth to power: parrhesiastes. To me, Rachael Denhollander is an excellent current example of a parrnesiastes. 

As the French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault stated in his 1983 speech on the subject, “…parrhesia is a verbal activity in which a speaker expresses his personal relationship to truth, and risks his life because he recognizes truth-telling as a duty to improve or help other people (as well as himself). In parrhesia, the speaker uses his freedom and chooses frankness instead of persuasion, truth instead of falsehood or silence, the risk of death instead of life and security, criticism instead of flattery, and moral duty instead of self-interest and moral apathy.” (From Michel Foucault’s speech, “The Meaning and the Evolution of the Word Parrhesia.“)

Substitute ‘she, her, hers (and herself)’ for the above—and recognize that by death Foucault meant not only literal death but also a large personal loss such as one’s personal or professional reputation—and we have an excellent description of the courage of Denhollander (and the other girls and women willing to testify) in helping bring to light and to justice the despicable actions of the serial pedophile and sports physician, Larry Nassar.

As Denhollander writes in her recent (January 26, 2018) NYT op-ed “The Price I Paid for Taking On Larry Nassar”, as a result of her being the first to go public with her accusations of sexual abuse at the hands of Nassar, she lost her church, her closest friends, and her privacy.  Also, since she happens to be a lawyer, she was accused of being an ambulance chaser and an opportunist. Despite all of that, she used her freedom (and her privilege), chose frankness and truth and moral duty to speak the truth to oh so many powers. Because, as she points out, it was not only Nassar who was at fault here, but also all of the institutions (most notably Michigan State University), as well as the many coaches, trainers, and psychologists that colluded to allow him to perpetuate his abuse of girls as young as six.

Denhollander concludes with this call to action for each and every one of us:

“Predators rely on community protection to silence victims and keep them in power. Far too often, our commitment to our political party, our religious group, our sport, our college or a prominent member of our community causes us to choose to disbelieve or to turn away from the victim. Far too often, it feels easier and safer to see only what we want to see. Fear of jeopardizing some overarching political, religious, financial or other ideology — or even just losing friends or status — leads to willful ignorance of what is right in front of our own eyes, in the shape and form of innocent and vulnerable children.”

My hope is that we all choose to be part of a community that works to prevent this type of abuse to happen and that fully supports those who have the courage to speak truth to power. And, we should remember the consequences of not speaking up, of staying silent.

 

Child Abuse and Sexual Assault Prevention

IMG_1919April is both National Child Abuse Prevention Month and National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. Both are complex, dark, depressing subjects that most of us would rather not talk about. Perhaps that is why they both have their official ‘months’ during one of the most beautiful, spring, hope, and renewal times of year. I’m writing this post on the last day of April partly because I’ve procrastinated and wanted to avoid the topics myself. But I am also ambivalent about the practice of observing national months of awareness of such important public health issues, since awareness and prevention efforts should happen every month, every day, by all of us. These are societal issues that we are all implicated in perpetuating if we do nothing to stop them.

I want to acknowledge the hard work of all the wonderful school nurses, sexual assault center nurses, counselors, and other support staff who work with children and adult survivors of child abuse and/or sexual assault. Having worked as a nurse practitioner in several domestic violence shelters, in urban safety net hospital emergency departments, and with street-involved youth (with high rates of both childhood abuse and sexual assault on the streets), I know first-hand how emotionally challenging this work can be. It is important work, so let’s support them in any way we can.

Here are some of my favorite current resources related to child abuse prevention and sexual assault awareness/prevention:

National Child Abuse Prevention Making Meaningful Connections 2014 Prevention Resource Guide, by DHHS, Administration for Children and Families. (Full disclosure: I was a health care provider consultant on the development of this guide but there were hundreds of consultants/contributors including community and family members).

Moriah Silver’s Huffington Post article “The not so shocking news about campus sexual assault,” (4-29-14). (Shame on us at colleges/universities!)

National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

National Sexual Assault Hotline (1-800-656-HOPE) by RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network).

And this quote, from the last poem of a lovely collection of poems sent to me by Jane Seskin, a longtime therapist in NYC who works with women dealing with intimate partner violence:

“The Take-Away

Repeat/ 3 times a day.

I’m grateful/to be alive.

I deserve to be treated/with kindness and respect.”

(From: Witness to Resilience: Stories of Intimate Violence, 2013, Jane Seskin.)