Human Error

There’s something about the sexual exploitation of children that pushes a denial button. Too often friends, family, and associates of both the perpetrators and the victims avoid acknowledging the truth. Of course the perpetrators don’t want to admit to what they’ve done, but often the victims lock their victimization into the darkest corners of their minds and never speak of it, either. I don’t know why this is true, yet it happens time and time again.

We might be shocked that the Catholic Church covered up the pedophilia of some priests rather than deal honestly with it, but the same behavior can be found in families and any other group where adults and children form relationships. Nearly always the first reaction to evidence of sexual abuse is to pretend it isn’t happening. And even when there’s an acknowledgment it might be happening, the next reaction is to protect the perpetrator. People like to believe they would protect the child, but when confronted with reality they often hesitate to do so. This may be because they sincerely like the perpetrator and can’t believe he is some kind of predatory monster. Cognitive dissonance wins out over taking action to protect the child.

We’ve learned that Speaker Dennis Hastert was told of of allegations against Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) of improper contact with a young male page, which contradicts what Hastert said yesterday. Today Hastert and other Republican leaders are full of thundering indignation about Foley’s alleged acts. The lawmaker who oversees the page program says he knew about Foley’s “funny” emails a year ago. This fellow claims he “took immediate action,” even though the action seems to have had no effect or follow up. And in spite of all the thundering indignation, Majority Leader John Boehner of Ohio blocked a vote on a resolution offered by Nancy Pelosi “asking the House Ethics Committee to begin a preliminary investigation into Foley’s conduct and the GOP leadership’s response to it,” says CNN.

I sincerely hope that Foley’s conduct amounted only to inappropriate emails. Whatever it was he might have done, however, we’re likely to find out that lots of people either knew or suspected Foley’s behavior was inappropriate, yet they couldn’t bring themselves to confront him. Or if they did speak to him, they still covered up for him. This isn’t a Republican thing, it’s a human thing.

Today there’s considerable rib-nudging activity on the Left. As much as we all like to see hypocrisy outed, this isn’t something to joke about. Some on the Right are facing up to what happened, but others sniff about a setup or engage in some weird denial of the denials. I suggest it would be more helpful if everyone resolved to notice, acknowledge, and act upon inappropriate behavior between adults and children and not ignore it or cover it up. This doesn’t mean engaging in vigilante witch hunts; just stop the denial.

Update: Could somebody explain to Don Surber that sexual exploitation of a minor is not equivalent to alleged sexual harassment of an adult?

Ex-New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey made life hell for Golan Cipel, who became the object of his unwanted attention. Like Foley, McGreevey resigned. But unlike Foley, McGreevey’s resignation was timed to allow a Democratic successor without an election; looks like Republicans will lose Foley’s seat.

And unlike Foley’s target, Cipel was not a minor. Far from it.

Is Surber implying that, since Cipel was not a minor, what McGreevey allegedly did was worse (note that Mr. Cipel’s claims are uncorroborated)? How weird. I’m not saying either one is OK, but they are hardly equivalent. Adults don’t sustain the same kind of emotional and psychological damage and ought to be able to stand up for themselves better than a child can.

Also, I’m not aware that other Democrats in New Jersey had any idea that Mr. Cipel was feeling victimized until McGreevey spoke out about it, meaning that the New Jersey Democratic Party was not covering up for McGreevey. (I could be mistaken on that point; let me know if I am.)

I’d also like to point out to Mr. Surber and the other righties who are whining about a “setup” that had other Republicans in Congress dealt forthrightly with this matter a year ago, when they found out about it, it wouldn’t be coming up six weeks before an election.

Don’t blame the Dems for this mess, dude.

Update update: See John Nichols at The Nation for a different perspective.

13 thoughts on “Human Error

  1. Great post on this. The important thing is to bring the pervert to justice, as well as those who covered for him, if it is proven that someone covered for him. The important thing is to protect children from predators. If Republican leaders covered for Foley, the Republicans should lose the House and the Senate.

  2. There is a fairly intense wingnut comment thread on TM’s blog (TM himself called it right IMO – house leadership being cautious for fear of yet another “GOP Pervert” scandal that would play poorly with the GOP base.) BTW I was informed it’s “ephebophilia”. Word for the day.

  3. I sincerely hope that Foley’s conduct amounted only to inappropriate emails.

    Foley has already exceeded “inappropriate”..He’s a sexual predator, a pedophile. As a parent of a child who has been victimized by a sexual predator/pedophile, I can understand how people reign in their suspicions of improper behavior with the idea of what they’re perceiving as improper might be the product of there own shortcomings in understanding healthy relationships. But in Foley’s case, the threshold of inappropriate or somehow innocently transgressed action has been well crossed. I’m looking forward to seeing his mug posted on Florida’s sexual predators list in the near future.( maybe FDLE will invite Foley to their annual Halloween party for predators).
    And as for the scum who had knowledge of his behavior and didn’t actively confront it, either they don’t understand how it destroys lives (generationaly) or they really don’t give a shit about children’s lives. To me, pedophiles are worse than murderers…they destroy the lives of their victims in the cruelest of ways. Does anybody think that Foley’s victims will be able to foster a healthy, wholesome, unguarded and nuturing relationship with there own children when they have them? There will be relational damage!

    Foley should have been a Pastor or a Priest..You can’t get a better cover than to hide among the flock.

  4. I’m totally with Swami. I don’t see how anyone who reads the few Foley e-mails we’ve seen can describe them as “inappropriate.” The man was clearly trolling — it’s an open-and-shut case of internet sex with children, and that’s a chilling, frightening crime.

    It may be true that the families and friends of sexual predators are inclined to initially deny the crime and protect the perpetrator. Certainly anecdotal evidence would seem to support that contention — and though I might acknowledge that instinct as a human reaction, that doesn’t make it right. In this case, however, the enablers weren’t family members or close friends with emotional ties to the perp — they were political allies who denied or even covered up allegations that a Republican Congressional leader was exchanging sexually charged correspondence with underage pages.

    That warrants, I think, a serious investigation.

  5. Interesting post, and interesting comments.Swami says pedophiles ar worse than murders.The state of Florida agrees, pedophiles and all other sex offenders in Florida are treated worse than murders.While Florida doesn’t execute them (except if they kill or maim their victims ) you don’t want to be a sex offender in the “sunshine state”.Unfortunately, the tag “Sex Offender” in Florida casts a wide net which ensnares many people guilty of a lesser charge than for which it was intended (rape of or sexual battery on a child, sexual predator), and places those people in the same category ,which is a sentence to hell on earth.
    I know 2 men who were accused of inappropriately touching underage females ( touching, not having p/v sex ). Both pleaded “no contest” on the advice of their lawyers due to the cost of defending themselves and lack of a solid alibi. Both still say they did not commit the crimes they were charged with, and upon intense investigation, were found to have no child porn material or any charges in the past. Both cases happened 15 years ago, and, their lives have been destroyed.I advise any man over the age of 21 to NEVER, NEVER, under any circumstances allow yourself to be alone with an underage female. I have flatley refused to drive my daughters friends (or babysitter,when she was younger) home or anywhere else without a witness.
    As the father of a 13 year old girl, I can assure you that if someone raped her or attempted to, I would be that persons worst nightmare.As the brother of a man who pleded no contest to a charge of fondling an underage female over 15 years ago, and whose life has been reduced to that of an unemployed disfunctional drunk constantly badgered by the legal system, politicians seeking to look tough on crime, and neighbors with a bone to pick, I can assure everyone that while the perp must be punished, it should be after a fair trial, and the punishment must fit the crime.In Florida, those convicted of sex crimes must register with the police annually or upon changing residence. Many towns and counties have adopted laws prohibiting sex offenders from living within a certain distance of a church or school, and some have outright banned convicted sex offenders from living in their community. Conviction of a sex offense in Florida carries a life time sentence with no end.
    As a resident of Florida, Mr. Foley is in for the ride of his life. Ironically, it is because of his own efforts as a lawmaker, crafting legislation to intensly prosecute child molesters that he will suffer hell on earth.Guilty or not, he will go broke defending himself, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he his own life. As the man who helped craft legislation to punish sexual predators, he knows exactly what he is facing. He is worse off than a leper in the Old Testament. Mr Foley is done.
    My opinion of the Republican party as a whole is very low, for the most part, they are a bunch of santimonious blow hards and chickenhawk rich kids.A gay pedophile Republican lawmaker is the icing on the cake.The light cast on Foley will no doubt illuminate other cockroaches ( no pun intended) as they scurry for cover, but there is little joy in finding your home infested with vermin.

  6. That warrants, I think, a serious investigation.

    I agree that it warrants a serious investigation; I’m not saying it doesn’t. I’m saying that we need to think about the denial pattern that we see time and time again and try to understand why it happens. I honestly don’t know why it happens, although I postulate that it’s more common in groups with rigid and repressed attitudes about their sexuality (like Catholic priests or Republicans). I don’t know that for a fact, but I do believe there’s some kind of social-psychopathology going on.

  7. Maha, I also would like to better understand the denial pattern that goes on. But, though denial by families and denial by politicians might share an aversion to facing awful facts, I think that this denial about Foley is probably qualitatively different that some usual social-psychopathology that is in play with families and close friends.
    In the instance of Foley, what I am most struck by is the fact that Republican leaders who knew of Foley’s predator inclination toward pages were blithely able to continue on with their own uninterrupted colleagial and political relationship to him.
    Isn’t it telling that they contacted the political leader of the house repugs, but pointedly bypassed the one Democrat who should have been told of the issue? This points to the power of political positioning trumping the well-being of actual children…….just as we see that the power of political positioning trumps even the US Constitution today.

    I am thinking on this keyboard……the commonality [between family member denial and politician denial ] seems to be the selfishness of ‘not wanting to lose a perceived favorable position’, whether that favorable position is house majority status or the status of keeping a marriage to a guy [who diddles with your kids].

  8. Donna — I postulate there is cognitive dissonance between notions of what a sexual predator must be like (e.g., cold, monstrous, evil) and the real personalities of real people who are sexual predators (just like regular folks). I suspect that there’s a tendency to go into denial when one knows the perpetrator personally at all.

    If the perpetrator is a complete stranger, and particularly if the perpetrator is an “other” in any sense (from a different race or ethnic group, for example) it’s more likely people will acknowledge what is happening right away and speak out about it. But if it’s a personal acquaintance who by all outward appearances is perfectly normal, I suspect it’s more likely the denial syndrome will kick in.

    When people call sexual predators “monsters” I cringe a little, because I think this attitude may add to the likelihood of cognitive dissonance.

    I’d also like to speak to how reactions to sex offenses impacts the victims. Seems to me that shrieking about how little Jane’s or Jimmy’s life is ruined just exacerbates the damage. Somehow, little Jane or Jimmy will have to drag themselves through many long years of life with those words ringing in their ears, living with the secret shame that I’m not normal; I’m a freak; I’m ruined.. It seems to me the far more compassionate response would be to reassure the child that you didn’t do anything wrong, and you are not abnormal because someone did this to you. Followed up by therapy that not only encourages the child to talk about what happened, but also reinforces the message you are still the precious and lovable person you were before.

    FYI: Most victims of sexual abuse do NOT become perpetrators when they grow up, myths to the contrary. In Foley’s case, we’re talking about teenage boys who got creepy emails, not younger children who were forced to commit sexual acts. As long as it was just creepy emails, I suspect the kids can get over it with some guidance and suffer no long-term psychological effects. If we find out Foley had physical encounters with the pages that’s something else entirely, of course.

  9. You are so right, Maha, about the perps not being necessarily monstrous, and about the kids being further damaged by all the emotional drama and labeling.

    Many decades ago, my first-born son was abused by the baby-sitter’s husband. I got to know of this simply because, when putting my three-year-old to bed, he quietly said, “B….put his penis in my butt….” [I was very glad I had a little one who could communicate with real terms for body parts]. Though an avalanche of deep feelings kept washing through me, I had the autonomy to stay calm. The next day, I took my child to the pediatrician who gave me the very best of news and advice. He said the anus was a bit stretched, but that penetration had not occurred. Then he said that the child was not at all physically harmed, but would have some residual dim unexplained sense… he advised me to wait until my son was maybe 16 years old and calmly tell him then what had happened…..which would allay those dim sensings at an age when he would be mature enough to understand it. That is exactly what I did do.
    But, first……after the visit to the pediatrician, and leaving my son with a good friend……I went to the house where my son had been babysat. I told B….’s wife about what my son had said, and what the doctor said, and said she needed to call B….. home from work. While sitting in their front yard waiting for him to appear, she kept repeating that he would never do such a thing. The minute he drove his truck into the driveway and he got out, he looked at me and said, “I didn’t mean to hurt him.” She burst into tears, he burst into tears, and they held onto each other. B……had a deep need to let out years of buried personal anguish, telling me he started doing such things at age 14 [he was then 26] and couldn’t seem to stop. He was actually relieved to be caught, I believe. He explained that he would sometimes need to go do an errand and offer to take along one of the babysat kids ‘for an ice cream’ or some such reason…..planning thus to have a child to himself and his perverted urges.
    At any rate, I made a decision. I told him that he had a choice and he had to make it immediately. He could go with me right then to sign up for help and tell a counseling agency all the facts [in my presence], or I would report him to the police. He chose the help, and I drove, following him to an agency I designated. And to this day, I hope he got real help, not only for himself, but for the sake of his wife and little daughter.
    I never wanted nor had any further contact with them…….going there was a part of my better self, but later I let all the anger and sorrow and anguish wash through me, all that stuff that made me want to kill him. Even writing this decades later, I feel the heaviness of the whole thing, notwithstanding that my son did just fine.

  10. I think the culpability lies with the Republican leadership because they notified the Republican election committee not the ethics committee or any other committee that might have investigated the issue in a serious manner. By doing that, it shows that their only concern was how the issue would impact their electability.

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