I have just finished reading an excellent piece of journalistic non-fiction, Our Guys by Bernard Lefkowitz. Subtitled The Glen Ridge Rape and the Secret Life of the Perfect Suburb, it chronicles how the inhabitants of an affluent New Jersey town rallied around not the victim but the high school football ‘heroes’ who inserted a broom and baseball bat into a girl they’d known since childhood, a girl with a mental age of eight.
The rape took place in 1989. With recurrent gang-rape cases involving athletes (all too often footballers) both here and in the US, nothing much seems to have changed in a generation.
What such cases have in common with how the BBC or Chetham’s School of Music or the Catholic Church have all handled allegations of sexual abuse is what Lefkowitz calls ‘a corruption of decent intent’.
The greater the ‘decency’ of the institution involved, the harder it becomes for those tasked with upholding that decency to trust fragile, uncorroborated, immature, distasteful testimony, and the more reluctant they become to perceive sufficient cause to wound the reputation of a beloved ideal with which they themselves identify. Those who work for a prestigious institution – or cherish the image of a community like Glen Ridge – want it to remain good and unsullied. Wishes become beliefs: victims easily become unreliable, undeserving, predatory, while abusers become tragic victims of a momentary lapse, a witch-hunt, ‘boys will be boys’.
The reason such boys regard themselves as omnipotent is that an institution confers special status on them. The footballer, charismatic music teacher, priest or charity fund-raiser is encouraged to see their own aggressive dominance as heroic; the more they get away with it, the more they internalize the right to dominate.
The symbiotic relationship between institution and abuser means that disowning a hero, one of ‘our guys’, appears to damage or shame the beloved institution. Then the institution appears frail, in need of protection, requiring its leaders to vigorously defend it by attacking the suddenly powerful source of the threat against it. In Glen Ridge – for example – the ‘powerful’ threat was a local schoolgirl with a mental age of eight who couldn’t say no to the gang of ‘jocks’ she idolized. Very few people in that ‘all-American’ suburb spoke up in her defence. Their wish to protect their psychological investment in their beloved ‘institution’ overcame their own vaunted morality.