Mistakes in dealing with sexual violence

A controversy on sexual violence, harassment and abuse is rocking Ateneo de Manila University (ADMU). How the university deals with the issue is relevant to many Philippine institutions. As I point out in another article, all of us are challenged to set aside our personal loyalties and even our own past actions and in good faith find ways to move forward. We can do this by fundamentally changing existing processes and  reorienting them to prevent all kinds of sexual violence, abuse, and harassment.

Unfortunately, the university so far has taken a business-as-usual approach —defensive, legalistic, and victim-blaming—to the complaints that have been raised. Initially, ADMU’s President Fr. Jose T. Villarin had a good response apologizing to the community and promising change. But a second memorandum released this week went back to that business-as-usual approach. 

What is needed is absolute and full transparency of the cases in this current controversy. Partial accounts are harmful; they only perpetuate this defensive approach. The first statement of Fr. Villarin was good; the second one is very bad. I would not go so far as to conclude that there is malice here as I know the people in charge of this issue and I believe that they are trying hard to do the right things. But clearly, there is something broken in the processes within the university, including on gathering the facts of cases together and communicating them to the right offices. For instance, the proposition that one professor has not been charged with any complaint was immediately publicly contradicted by one of the complainants.

This is not right. What we are seeing is a repeat of the mistakes many Catholic Church institutions made and are making in dealing with child sex abuse, putting forward responses that made things worse instead of better for victims and for the institutions.

Monsignor Stephen Joseph Rossetti, an American Catholic priest, author, educator, licensed psychologist and expert on psychological and spiritual wellness issues for Catholic priests, has listed mistakes Church institutions has made in dealing with child sexual abuse issues. Some of these are relevant to Ateneo de Manila and to the Philippines. Although he speaks mostly about  minors, his insights apply to vulnerable adults as well.

One mistake is to not listen to victims. According to Rossetti: “One of the reasons we have not heard from victims of child sexual abuse until recently is that we have not been willing to listen. Victims often want to tell their story. They will first test us, in many subtle ways, to see if we are willing to listen. When we are not open to hearing the upsetting truth, victims will not open themselves in vulnerability, telling their painful stories of betrayal and abuse. Thus, the tragedy of child sexual abuse has largely remained a cancerous secret for centuries. The terrible truth must be exposed to the healing light of day, but it can only occur if we listen.” 

Rossetti continues: “The remedy is to establish a society and an institution that is willing to listen to victims. By our words, our gestures, and our sensitivity, we must build a listening culture that values its children and listens to their heartfelt words.”

I know the Ateneo de Manila student who complained about how one case has been resolved. He is my student. Whether he filed a complaint is irrelevant; the question is whether he in fact testified in the case in question and was he in fact sexually harassed as he claims? The statement on this student not filing a charge has been correctly described as gaslighting.

Another common mistake, according to Msgr. Rossetti, is to underestimate the prevalence of child sexual abuse in one’s local area. People are often willing to admit that child sexual abuse occurs, however they add, “But it’s rare here.”  Indeed, there are some cultures where it is still taboo to speak of such sexual crimes as child sexual abuse. But as Rossetti points out: “When we really begin to listen, the awful truth will eventually come to light: child abuse is a scourge in all parts of the globe. While it may take on different manifestations and different cultural adaptations depending upon the culture, the abuse of children’s vulnerability is universal.”

We must have the courage to see that sexual violence, harassment, and abuse is happening in our university, schools, churches, and neighborhoods. We must acknowledge that there are abusers among us, some of whom we know and would never suspect.

Another mistake is to believe that most allegations of abuse are false. Not so, according to Rossetti, who observes that this is a form of denial: “We want to believe that true cases of abuse are rare and that alleged victims are exaggerating and/or not telling the truth. To be sure, there are false allegations. They may be found especially in divorce custody cases, disgruntled students getting back at teachers, or “victims” seeking large cash settlements in some Western countries. But even in the latter scenarios, over 90 percent of allegations are founded. People rarely lie when they say they have been sexually abused as a minor. Victims have potentially much to lose by going public. They are often blamed and ostracized, especially if the alleged perpetrator was a popular public figure, such as a priest.” 

It is also a mistake to say “the victim will get over it.”

Rossetti points out that “many people believed that child sexual abuse was not a big deal”, “thought the children would get over it” and  “that the best thing to do was to ignore it and not make a fuss.” On the contrary, “victims need to be heard and cared for as soon as possible.” According to Rossetti:

“In the wake of child sexual abuse, many victims report significant symptoms, sometimes severe, lasting into adulthood. There is a large body of literature that speaks of the likelihood of serious psychological trauma as a result of childhood sexual abuse. Rather than ignoring it, victims need to be heard and believed.” 

The one thing that changed my mind on how to approach this issue was seeing many students post in social media their experiences, many going back years, and seeing how the impact of these experiences have affected them through the years.

This is as much a cultural as a legal struggle. It is important to educate people about the red flags of sexual violence, abuse, and harassment. Experts say there are recognizable signs and indicators of problematic behavior—grooming victims, manipulative actions, use of sexual language and images, meeting students alone at night, inappropriate physical touching (in some contexts, all physical touching can be inappropriate), etc. The common-sense rule is to respects boundaries and never cross them. Because of the power relationship, it’s the teacher or superior that must set those boundaries. We should not expect children and vulnerable adults to tell us what those boundaries, it might actually be good for the school to formulate detailed guidance. 

Personally, it has has taken me years to come to this point. I will be the first to admit my own shortcomings as an administrator in dealing with similar issues in the past. But I am comfortable with where I am now and totally committed to support the Time’s Up Ateneo coalition. 

I am risking long-standing relationships and friendships by taking this radical stand. But the stakes are very high for our students if the response of the university is ineffective. The stakes are also very high for the Ateneo de Manila University and Catholic institutions if this is not done right. Failure to address the problem will only erode the faith of the youth and families and will weaken the university and Church that I love very much. These are risks I do not want to take.



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