Why Witnesses Do — Or Don't — Report Abuse
NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Few things can shake an organization like allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct. Penn State's famed football program is the latest in the headlines but too many other institutions have faced similar charges. Details are always different, of course, but one question remains constant: Why didn't those who witnessed or heard about the abuse act to stop it?
Today in a statement announcing plans to retire at the end of this season, Penn State coach Joe Paterno wrote: With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more. Earlier in the week, John Salveson, the former head of the Pennsylvania chapter of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, told the Associated Press: Here we go again. When an institution discovers the abuse of a kid, their first reaction is to protect the reputation of the institution and the perpetrator.
If you knew about abuse in your office, in your church, in your school, did you tell? 800-989-8255. Email us email@example.com. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on "Talk of the Nation." Later in the program, the next billion dollar video game, but first, Mindy Mitnick joins us. She's a licensed psychologist with decades of experience working with witnesses and victims of abuse.
She joins us from her office in Minneapolis, and Mindy Mitnick, nice to have you on the program today.
MINDY MITNICK: Thanks for having me.
CONAN: And I wonder, Coach Paterno's words, in hindsight, I wish I had done more, I suspect you have heard those before.
MITNICK: I have. And so have victims who wish that somebody had come to their assistance when they knew about what was happening to them.
CONAN: And as you look at the details of this case, where various people are informed and somehow it's all shuffled off and no investigation happens and no one is punished - these are allegations going back as far as 1998 - again, does this look familiar?
MITNICK: It does look familiar and of course we've known about this for decades in other institutions, whether they are schools or churches. Boy Scouts had problems going back for decades. And so it always sounds familiar and yet it continues to happen.
CONAN: Why is it that people don't do anything or don't do enough?
MITNICK: Well, I think sometimes people don't do anything because they're quite afraid of the consequences of doing something. There's always that worry that they won't be believed if they report it, especially if the person that they've witnessed doing something to a child is somebody in a position of power. So they're afraid that they won't be believed.
I think people are very afraid of being involved in the system, being involved with police, having their names released to the media so that their privacy isn't kept and themselves being under attack. And I think sometimes people are in such shock that they literally don't know whether or how to do something.
CONAN: That interesting quote from the former head of the SNAP chapter in Pennsylvania, protect the institution, is that, do you think, from your experience, something that people consciously do?
MITNICK: I think sometimes people do consciously protect the institution. I think that denial about the reality, the seriousness, the extent and the devastation of child abuse are very powerful forces to keep the allegations sort of moving along through the system, saying, well, I've done what I needed to because I told this person and then never any follow-through to see what happened to protect the child.
CONAN: In the Penn State case, the allegations are against a person who is a revered figure there, an assistant coach. Not just an assistant coach, really the assistant coach who helped Joe Paterno develop the nickname of Penn State football as Linebacker U. And the allegations against somebody like that, again, going back to that SNAP quote, protect the perpetrator, this is a revered figure.
MITNICK: It is a revered figured and I think yet that somebody did tell and it doesn't appear, at least with the information we have so far, that anything further happened when that person was brave enough to tell.
CONAN: Is it different for people of different ages and in different contexts? I suspect it is.
MITNICK: In terms of the witnessing?
MITNICK: Yeah. I think that children, for instance, who witness something perpetrated by an adult are very fearful of reporting. We know that children themselves who are victimized are very fearful of reporting. And so for children I think it's quite understandable why they don't report or make sometimes what later looks like a disclosure but at the time wasn't really clear what they were trying to communicate.
But adults know what they're seeing with their eyes and hearing with their ears and yet I think sometimes the notion is that this will be so disruptive to the institution that - and this is sort of a quote - we'll just handle it ourselves.
CONAN: We want to ask our callers if they were a witness to sexual abuse, especially of children, and if they knew about such allegations in their church, their organization, their office, did they report it? 800-989-8255. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. John's calling us from Flagstaff, Arizona.
JOHN: Hi, Neal. Thank you for taking my call and thank you for having a show about this, this really painful issue. I work at the local university here at the swimming pool and there was a coach there that had a team of young girls and I caught him twice touching them and doing things that were wrong and I wrote it all up and put into(ph) paper, took it to human resources, and 10 days later I was fired.
Five years after I was fired, he was brought to trial, given a 20 year sentence, and it – but by then the damage to these innocent young ladies was done. They will live with the scar for the, you know, for the rest of their lives. You know, so the thing about protecting the institution is really pretty disgusting because the (unintelligible) you protect the people and worry about the institution later.
CONAN: You took it to HR, and forgive me, I don't mean to be cross-examining you, you took it to HR. Did you call the police?
JOHN: No. No, I did not call the police. I didn't. I must admit that, you know, after I lost my job I was trying to, you know, get another job and stay afloat and I didn't take it to the police. And that, you know, that was unfortunate. I'm sorry for that. I paid a high price for speaking up to the human resources department and I, you know, I...
This sounds selfish, I know, but you know, I had rent to pay and I had two boys to take care of and so on. And so I didn't take it to the police and I regret that. I really do.
CONAN: John, thanks. I'm sorry, did you have something else to say?
JOHN: Well, this whole thing about, you know, we hear about this over and over and over again. You know, I mean Penn State and (unintelligible) over here and, you know, it seems like the organization just – the first thing they want to do is protect the organization. You know, like at Upper Big Branch mine and British Petroleum and everything is let's take care of the organization and the heck with the people. That's not right.
CONAN: John, thanks very much for the phone call. We appreciate you sharing your story. And Mindy Mitnick, there is an aspect of this - any official at Penn State has to, and I know that this sounds bad, but has to, as they hear these allegations, calculate in somebody is going to sue us for many millions of dollars, and that has to be part of their thinking, no?
MITNICK: I think it is, but I've worked on those kinds of lawsuits both for the institution and for the child victimized. And my experience is that when institutions come forward and say this was a terrible thing that happened, we are implementing policies to make sure that nothing like this can ever happen again, the people who have been victimized feel very differently about the institution than when their concerns, when the harm that's been done of the child, is brushed aside or covered up.
CONAN: Or seemingly put in second place - second place to the future of the institution itself. Let's bring Amy Russell into the conversation, deputy director of the National Child Protection Training Center. She's an attorney and a counselor who trains organizations and people on how better to deal with sex abuse allegations and investigations. She joins us from Wisconsin Public Radio in Lacrosse, Wisconsin. Nice to have you with us today.
AMY RUSSELL: Thank you for having me.
CONAN: And again, one of the consistent factors in these kinds of institutional stories is that someone other than the victim knew about it.
CONAN: And how do you develop a culture that encourages people to come forward?
RUSSELL: Well, one of the things that Mindy said is really important. Institutions need to be able to acknowledge that there are some instances of abuse taking place within their organization. They need to be able to recognize that, and they need to establish policies, hopefully first to prevent them from happening. But then how do they respond if something does happen?
It needs to be an immediate response. It needs to be something where they conduct, they work with the authorities in conducting an investigation as opposed to trying to deal with it within their own confines of the organization.
CONAN: The authorities, an important point. Do people need to be trained to call the police?
RUSSELL: Training is absolutely critical. We need to train people when they're working in any kind of a field where abuses may take place. They need to understand how to recognize the signs and symptoms of victims. They need to recognize the signs and symptoms of all forms of maltreatment, and they need to understand what their responsibilities are as mandated reporters and how to report, and they need to understand that beyond the law, there's an ethical or moral obligation that they should adhere to in making those reports for protecting kids.
Because what we know about children is that they are probably not going to come forward on their own, and the abuse is going to continue unless somebody recognizes that it's taking place.
CONAN: And Mindy Mitnick, we're going to let you go in just a moment, but protecting the perpetrator, in many cases this is somebody you've known for many years. Certainly that's the case in the allegations at Penn State.
MITNICK: Yes, and in fact it's much easier for children to report when the perpetrator is a stranger to them or somebody who isn't important in their life and so much harder when it's somebody who is somebody they depend on, is somebody who has authority over them, is somebody who facilitates their participation in school activities, a religious organization.
And so all of those are much more difficult for children to let others know about because there really is this sort of sense of who are they going to believe. Are they going to believe me or this person who has so much more power and authority than me?
CONAN: Mindy Mitnick, a licensed psychologist who works with witnesses and victims of abuse, with us today from her office in Minneapolis. Many thanks for being with us today.
MITNICK: And thank you for having me.
CONAN: More on failure to report abuse when we come back in just a moment. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We're talking today about, well, coming off the allegations at Penn State University, why it is that in these stories that involve institutions, and they've involved, as we've mentioned, the Catholic Church, other religious groups, the Boy Scouts and, well, now Penn State football.
People knew about the allegations of abuse. Some witnessed it yet did not come forward or did not do enough to actually make the abuse stop. In the Penn State case, the allegations involve 10- and 11-year-old boys. Why not? If that's you, call and tell us, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. Our guest is Amy Russell, deputy director of the National Child Protection Training Center.
And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Let's go to Scott(ph), Scott with us from Greenville in Tennessee.
CONAN: Scott, you're on the air, go ahead please.
SCOTT: Well, I'm the pastor of a church, and an allegation was brought to me about an inappropriate conversational topic that an adult had with a young person at our church in a group setting, but they were alone. They were off to the side. And the parent of the child came to me, you know, very upset about this topic that was discussed.
And I found myself asking a question: Is that illegal? And what do you do? And we have a policy in place, we call it safe sanctuary policy, and so we - two of us are supposed to deal with it, two people, and we decided that since we didn't know the answer to the question is it illegal that we needed to talk to someone who would know the answer, which would be either a lawyer or a police officer.
So we called the police, and an investigation was begun, and eventually an arrest was made.
CONAN: And do you feel as if you did the right thing?
SCOTT: There's no doubt. It was the worst thing I've ever, and I've ever been through. It was horrific.
CONAN: Did you know the person?
SCOTT: And - but the thing is given what happened, I believe that we did the best we could to protect the victims and children.
CONAN: Did you know the person who...?
SCOTT: Oh, I knew him for years, seven, eight years before this was made, this allegation, and could not believe it, could not believe it was true. But my training have said that children rarely lie. It's rarely made up. And so we elected to just believe that, you know, that for the sake of this argument, let's believe it's true, let's go to the authorities who can do so much more than we can to determine the truth, you know.
I spent 90 minutes with this detective in my office. He interviewed me for 90 minutes, and when it was done, I went in my bathroom, and I vomited because I knew then in my heart, after what the police officer had told me, I knew that it was true. I knew, I knew where this was going.
CONAN: Scott, thank you very much for the call. Amy Russell, it seems to me - well, he said a number of important things there, but one of them was they had a policy in place.
RUSSELL: Yes, policies are critical. The training for folks that are going to be having any kind of a contact with children, it's important that we are trained, adequately trained, in again recognizing the signs and symptoms of abuse and understanding how to respond.
And one of the things that Scott had mentioned was that, you know, he just didn't know what to do and reached out for help. And that was fabulous, that he took the opportunity to reach out for somebody who has the expertise. A myth that a lot of people have when they're working with kids, and there's some kind of a concern or an allegation that comes up, is that they have to be able to prove that abuse is taking place before they call the authorities.
And that is absolutely not what the responsibility is for mandated reporters, and again going back to a moral or an ethical obligation, you don't have to prove it out. That's why we have investigative systems in place. When there is a reasonable suspicion that something inappropriate is going on, a call should go out to authorities, must go out in cases of mandated reporters, and let them investigate it. Let them figure out what's going on.
That's really what's critical. So policies that are in place that mandate external reporting is really critical.
CONAN: Here's an email from a listener who asks that we not use her name: I knew of abuse in my family as a child and did not report it. The family member offended another victim after I became an adult, and I told the victim's parent, and she reported it to the authorities. Had I reported it the first time, I might have saved future victims. The guilt will haunt me forever.
And this from Ermilla(ph) in Tallahassee: As a child I did not realize that what I was going through was abuse. We trust adults and assume that's just how things are supposed to be, even more so if it's a trusted adult perpetrating the abuse. We're brought up to believe that the big people know best and sometimes have no idea that this is just not true.
Let's get Katie(ph) on the line, and Katie's calling us from San Antonio.
KATIE: Hi, I knew of a girl in my high school, she was a really good friend of mine, she had a sexual relationship with one of the teachers, but she approached my friends and I and said that we shouldn't say anything to the administration because she was afraid of what was going to happen to her.
And also, he was very influential in the school district. He had a lot of power and a lot of money, and he was just a teacher, but she was just too afraid for us to go forward and for herself, as well.
CONAN: And what happened?
KATIE: Well, he remained a teacher, and about two years ago, we saw on the news that he was finally what they said retired. But there was a rumor going around that he once again had a sexual relationship and that the administration let him go.
CONAN: Let him go - well, all right, Katie, thank you very much. The caller - in retrospect, do you think you should have done differently?
KATIE: Absolutely. I was only 16 at the time, and I was really scared for her, and I didn't know what to do, and I wasn't really aware of what I could have done. But now that I'm older, and I see this man from Penn State, what he did, I see that absolutely we should have gone forward, and I regret not saying anything.
CONAN: Katie, thanks very much for the call. And Amy Russell, there seems to have been a pattern in some institutions, and this has been known to happen in schools, we'll just let this person go, and let's not create a fuss here. As long as they're not here, they can't hurt another one of our students.
RUSSELL: Right, and unfortunately what that leads to is they'll move on to someplace else. People don't know the background. They don't know the history of this person. They don't know what they've done in other organizations in which they've worked, and that frees them up to continue victimizing.
And these kids who have said, you know, first of all she had a sexual relationship, it wasn't a relationship, it was sexual abuse with an adult. And the responsibility didn't fall on her teenage friends to come forward and tell anybody. The responsibility should have fallen to the colleagues working with this person.
I would venture a guess to say that these colleagues that worked with this teacher probably had some suspicion or some concerns that were some inappropriate contacts or relationships between this teacher and some of the students. And what we know from research, what we know from practical exp, is when people know somebody else, when they work closely with them, they are less likely to report them.
They don't want to get people in trouble. They feel like they need to be able to prove out the allegation. They don't want to ruin relationships. And that's just not the case. What we should be worried about is the children and the harm that this continuing - this person continuing to work with these children is doing. And that's why those policies are so critical to set in place.
Oftentimes schools will have policies that say, you know, if you suspect abuse, go to the principal, and the principal will do an investigation, or they'll figure something out, and they'll make the report when in fact that shouldn't be the way the policies work.
Each of us have an individual responsibility to report, and there was a mention earlier about the Boy Scouts. In fact, the Boy Scouts are one of the organizations who's done a great deal of work to turn around that public perception, to turn around some of the policies that were not helpful for kids.
They've instituted a great deal of training. They've instituted no one-on-one interactions with kids. They have completely open programs, which doesn't allow secrets anymore, and they tell everybody who comes in contact with kids that youth protection begins with you.
We have to institute those kinds of training programs and policies within organizations, and we need to back that up with ongoing training. We need to train people who are coming up through colleges in how to deal with kids, how to recognize signs and symptoms.
So it can't just be once they're out on the job. We need to start at the university level requiring that students who may have an interest in working with kids to start learning about all of these aspects of how to keep kids safe, as well.
CONAN: Rocco Palmo is a journalist and founder of the blog Whispers in the Loggia. He's done extensive reporting on the Catholic Church and its response to the sex abuse scandal and joins us now from a studio in Philadelphia. Rocco Palmo, thank you very much for being with us today.
ROCCO PALMO: Thanks for having me, Neal.
CONAN: And Philadelphia, obviously, not all that far from Penn State. I'm sure that's on everybody's mind.
PALMO: Well, it's ground zero here. I think we have something like 300,000 Penn State alums just in this metropolitan area, including half of my family. So it's been a very tumultuous week around here, yeah.
CONAN: In your reporting on the Catholic Church - and again, this is an institution that's working hard to change perceptions and change realities. But this, for many, many years, way too long, allowed priests who are known to have abused children, to move on to other parishes.
PALMO: Well, one thing you have to remember, Neal, you know, we're coming up, it's amazing where time goes – January will be 10 years since the Boston Globe first reported the scandal, and it became a national eruption from that point. But the way things have changed so much, I mean it's been a staggering shift. But, you know, you were saying earlier about the need for policies, but - one thing the church has learned, I think, the last 10 years is that policies alone aren't enough. You know, you need enforcement mechanisms and you need to kind of make examples of people who don't report. And that was the biggest problem for many years, that people turned and look the other way, because, like the caller earlier said, they had concerns about their jobs, their livelihoods, especially when you're kind of wedded to the institution as opposed to it just being a job. And so it's been a long time of (unintelligible) learning, but you know, in a fairly quick space of time.
CONAN: And an institution where as you say people are wedded to it, the Catholic church is unique in that respect, I think. But there are still people lodged within that institution who face allegations that they did not do enough.
PALMO: Well, you have that, but I think that now you have it being handled within the criminal justice system in a way we didn't before, you know? Remember, for the first time last month, you have a bishop now indicted, the bishop of Kansas City, Missouri. He'll face trial next year. You have a former vicar for clergy, head of clergy personnel here in Philadelphia, because we had our own grand jury report about the archdiocese in sexual abuse this year, going to trial in March. And so I think that's a needed deterrent.
I mean, even just earlier, you know, even just in terms of how the church handles its own processes, there was a story I had heard out of California where a priest who failed to - who knew that another priest was abusing, just last year, and failed to report it to his bishop or to the authorities, that priest was removed from ministry. That's usually to be a penalty reserved for those who have abused themselves.
PALMO: So it shows the church has come a long way.
CONAN: We're talking about failure to report abuse and why it happens. Our guest, Rocco Palma, you just heard, a journalist and founder of the blog Whispers in the Loggia. Also with us, Amy Russell, deputy director of the National Child Protection Training Center. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's get Mary on the line, Mary calling us from Pensacola.
MARY: Hello. In the year 2008, a three-year-old relative of mine disclosed to me that he was being sexually abused by the husband of a day care center director in a prominent church in Pensacola, Florida. I reported it immediately to law enforcement. The three-year-old continued to disclose episodes to me but would not cooperate in the interview that was conducted by the child welfare authorities. Essentially they didn't consider the allegation to be credible. And although the child would continually tell me about other children that were being victimized, the specific acts that were done to him, I was heartbroken that I couldn't get the help from either law enforcement, I went to the child welfare authorities, I wrote to the FBI. I did everything in my power. I put out an ad in the paper, trying to get information out to the community to protect these children. But there was no success at all, and I think it's because when a child is that young...
MARY: ...people just don't want to believe that anything that horrendous could happen, or that a female would assist a male in harming children. I think that's another big issue, that women sometimes enable their spouses.
CONAN: Amy Russell, is Mary's perception accurate or is it also sometimes a problem in law enforcement groups that they know if they bring these allegations, it will have a huge impact no matter what. Even if they're proven not to be true, some people will never believe it.
RUSSELL: Well, an investigation requires a lot of things. Part of that, for Mary's comment, the child didn't disclose to the authorities. And when they can't get that kind of information from the child, there has to be a full and complete investigation from other sources. We can't just rely on a child to come forward and be able to give us everything. We have to do full investigations. We have to be training professionals on how to conduct good interviews, age appropriate, defensible interviews with children, and then follow up with corroborating any aspect of what the child says and any aspect of what other people talk about.
So this caller who talks about the child had reported to her, the investigators - I'm not sure what happened in the case, but they should have talked to her to gather as much information from her as well, interviewed other children in the daycare center who may also are likely victims. If this child is being victimized, there's probably other kids that are being victimized as well, previous folks who had their children in the daycare center. It should have been a full-fledged investigation. I don't know what happened. I can't speak to that. But that's one of the things that we're training people on, is that we have to get the reports in and then we have to do full and complete investigations by professionals who are adequately trained to be able to conduct those investigations.
CONAN: Mary, I'm so - I'm so sorry nothing happened. I thank you, though, for the call.
MARY: You're welcome.
CONAN: Email from Linda in San Antonio: For mandated reporters, it's important to note that people who report are protected by Good Samaritan laws. One must not wait until they know abuse has taken place. One must report when they suspect abuse has taken place.
And Amy Russell, we've heard that term a couple of times. Mandated reporters? Who is that?
RUSSELL: Yes. Mandated reporters are defined by state law, and usually it's professionals who work with children. Most frequently that includes medical professionals, educators, coaches, anybody affiliated with an educational program, anybody who's a therapist or counselor for children. It goes - depending on the state, it could be more narrow, it could be broader. There are some states, in fact, who have identified everybody as a mandated reporter. Everybody, regardless of what profession they're in, they have the responsibility to help protect children as well, which I think is a great policy for states to have.
CONAN: We're going to continue this conversation after a short break, about what drives some people to keep quiet on allegations of sexual abuse and what organizations can do to change that. Plus, we'll talk about the next billion-dollar videogame in the "Call to Duty" franchise. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CONAN: We're going to continue our conversation with Amy Russell of the National Child Protection Training Center and Rocco Palmo, journalist and founder of the blog Whispers in the Loggia, who's written in the - also written for The Tablet, a Catholic weekly newspaper.
And Michael(ph) Palmo, I wanted to follow up with you. As we keep finding out about how these different kinds of institutions have handled these questions, every time you hope that the experience of the Boy Scouts or the Catholic Church or another such institution would be a lesson for others, each time it seems to come as a shock and a surprise.
PALMO: No question, Neal, and I think particularly in this case because, again, you know, for any listeners who aren't so familiar with college football, what's - I've joked over the years - I never expected anything like this story, but I've always joked that the largest religion in Pennsylvania is Penn State football. It's very much like it is in the South, you know, just that kind of devotion, almost fanatical to the team and especially to this icon of Joe Paterno.
And Paterno has always built this program around this concept of morality, of ethics, of you know, the old way of doing things before college football became, you know, a 500 billion-dollar enterprise. And so, you know, while other programs, people would, you know, be let down by revelations of this sort, you know, Paterno's motto has always been success with honor.
And the fact that the honor, the Penn State football program is now in a shredder, effectively - and we'll see what actions are going to be taken by the board and everything - it's like the fall of the church. It's like the fall of a religion because people here don't just watch Penn State football. They live it. It's something they believe in, and it makes it all the more stunning and heart-wrenching, especially for the fans.
CONAN: Does it need to, at this point, be blown up and started again from scratch?
PALMO: Well, it seems like that's what's going to happen. Obviously Paterno announced his resignation this morning, but we've heard nothing from the board on that. So you're - it may end up being - there's already a huge public call in the press that he should not coach again on Saturday. He should not have the privilege of coaching one last - the last home football game of the season before 100,000 fans.
Seems, according to reports, the president of the university, Graham Spanier, is either going to be ejected from office or will announce his resignation later today. The two officials who have been charged have already stepped down. So I mean, for a school the size of Penn State, one of the 10 largest universities in the country, this is already - and even without a single trial - these are just allegations, of course - a major, major shake-up is underway.
CONAN: Let's go next to Eddie, and Eddie is on the line with us from Detroit.
EDDIE: Hi. Thanks for taking my call.
EDDIE: I'm a former social worker, foster parent, and I'm currently a special education teacher. Unlike your - what your guest suggested, I would not report one of my fellow teachers that's based on suspicion alone. I would have to have evidence. I know about abuse, but I also know there's some people falsely imprisoned, losing their jobs, careers ruined, damaged by false allegations.
She seems to be rushing to judgment even when she said we have to have protocols in place for defensible interviews. She didn't say truthful interviews. She said defensible interviews with children. Well, I've seen this kind of paranoia before in the '80s with the child care, people who were falsely imprisoned on what were later proved to be false allegations of abuse in child care settings. We've got to be careful always that we follow - that everybody gets due process no matter how horrendous the suspicion. There has to be evidence.
CONAN: I think you're referring to the recovered memory cases in...
EDDIE: Recovered memory. There's a young woman in New Jersey who spent years in prison. There was a big case out in California.
CONAN: Yeah, I...
EDDIE: They're all over the country.
CONAN: Amy Russell, I wanted you to come back and address Eddie's question.
RUSSELL: Absolutely. And, in fact, a defensible interview is one that looks for accurate statements within a child's interview, and then it doesn't stop there. There has to be more of an investigation. We're not making a decision or a conclusion based solely on anybody's report of abuse. The report initiates an investigation. And we have learned. There were, unfortunately, some poorly conducted investigations in the '80s, and what we've done is learned from those. My organization is one in particular who has worked very hard to train other people on how to conduct appropriate investigations and forensic interviews when there are allegations. And there are, unfortunately, false allegations of abuse, but they are rare. And when we do complete investigations with good, well-trained interviewers and follow up those interviews to try to find corroborating evidence, we are weeding out those false allegations. When we work together as multidisciplinary teams to do a complete investigation to try to get to the truth of the matter, that's when we're doing our service.
If we're not reporting, because people feel like they have to have proof before they go forward - quite frankly, teachers aren't trained as investigators. They're not trained in understanding the dynamics of victimization. Coaches aren't trained in understanding how they have to gather evidence. So it's critical that folks that are working with kids make the report and allow the professionals who have the training to do their job and do those investigations.
EDDIE CALLER: That's a lot of ifs. And you know people are willing to throw out due process in a second if it's a horrendous charge like child abuse.
CONAN: Eddie, are you a mandated reporter?
CALLER: Yes, I am. And I would have to have evidence, not just somebody's suspicion. I would have to have evidence. And I'm a foster care - foster parent. I can't suspect, you know, I know about sexual abuse, and I know children who've been sexually abused. And you have to have evidence. You can't just go on a whisper. There's been plenty of cases of teachers who've been falsely accused, and their careers are over. Their lives are ruined because everybody will always suspect that they just got off on this charge, and they really are a child molester.
CONAN: Eddie, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.
CONAN: If - I guess the laws in different states are probably different. But if you are a mandated reporter and you did not report suspicions, could you face problems?
RUSSELL: Yes. There - the statutes do vary across the country. But there's - there are statutes in place, that if you failed to report when you have reasonable suspicion, not evidence, but reasonable suspicion, that abuse is going on - there are protections in place for the person who reports those cases when it turns out to be unfounded. But when they're not reported, those folks can be held responsible for the outcomes, perhaps, even as much as if a child dies as a result of that. Those people can be held responsible for that child's death because they had that reasonable suspicion and failed to report.
CONAN: Rocco Palmo, let me ask with - and end with this question. The scandal in the Catholic church was so pervasive, not just in this country but in many other countries, too. So far up the chain, are you now convinced that there's been a cultural change and this institution has changed fundamentally?
PALMO: Absolutely, Neal. And, you know, just for an example, 10 years ago, there was Vatican resistance when the U.S. bishops passed the zero tolerance policy on abuse. Now, the U.S. bishops' policies have been enacted as a global canon law by Pope Benedict, just to give you one example. But, you know, I think we're seeing that same kind of cultural shift here. You have to remember, there was a time, and this is the time that Joe Paterno and his program embodied. That was, you know, the old culture when these - when, you know, reports of abuse or child sexual abuse was swept under the rug, and the preference, the prejudice was in favor of the perpetrator.
But now we live in a society, we live in a world, we understand that the preference has to be on the side of the victim, on the innocent. And that kind of culture, the fact that that was operative at Penn State, you know, for all of the, kind of, glories of the program on, you know, just as in the church, we saw it's undersight.
CONAN: Rocco Palmo, thanks very much for your time.
PALMO: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Rocco Palmo of the blog Whispers in the Loggia joined us from Philadelphia. Amy Russell, we appreciate your time today as well.
RUSSELL: Thank you very much.
CONAN: Amy Russell, deputy director of the National Child Protection Training Center, with us from Wisconsin Public Radio in La Crosse. We'll be back with more about the next billion-dollar video game, shortly.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.