Failures to act: Why we don’t always blow the whistle on abuse

Outrage. Befuddlement. Demands for the heads of leaders who probably knew something but didn’t appear to act. Righteous indignation against those who merely met legal obligations to report abuse but failed moral obligations to stop abuse.

Right now, in most of the country but especially in Philadelphia, you cannot turn on the television or listen to the radio without encountering such comments about the Sandusky/Penn State sexual abuse scandal. In my county, democrats control the county leadership for the first time in 140 years but no one seems to give that much time because of the outrage about this case. What people are talking about is, (a) why didn’t those who knew something was amiss do more to investigate abuse, and (b) what should happen to those people who failed to stop the abuse.

What would you have done?

If you are like me, you imagine that you would have acted to stop the abuse. You would have grabbed the boy out of the shower. You would have screamed bloody murder until someone took notice. You feel righteous indignation that no one seems to have had the moral fortitude to deal with this issue head on.

And you would be right to feel this way. But while we are holding leaders accountable for their failure to act and to protect (as well we should!) let us take a moment and address some of the reasons why we might not be quite as action oriented as we imagine ourselves. By doing so, we may make it more likely that we will respond correctly should we face the unfortunate situation of reporting someone we know to the authorities.

Here are some of the reasons we fail to intervene when intervention is needed:

Self protection

Worry about personal consequences can hinder our taking action. Thinking about how we will be treated, viewed, responded to can cause us to pause and not act. What if I get fired? What if this abusive person targets me? What if someone were to make an allegation about me? I wouldn’t like that so I don’t want to stir up trouble for this person.

Have you ever wondered why so many drivers flee the scene of a pedestrian/car accident–even when they were not at fault? We want to avoid facing the possibility that we might have done something wrong.

System protection

We sometimes worry about how the organization will be treated or viewed if abuse comes to light. Far too frequently individuals have covered up the sins of church leaders for fear of ruining the reputation of the congregation. This reason is also seen in the next two reasons. We don’t want people to turn away from God so we cover up what happened.


We’d like to think that with a larger group of individuals, sensibility will prevail. But my experience with institutions dealing with a sensitive issue suggests that once a group is deciding how to respond to abuse, it devolves into who has the loudest voice in what should be done next. Unfortunately, the loudest voice may be about liability (vs. morality) or outer reputation (vs. protection of victims). Also, groups often fail to address pertinent issues and alternative responses due to groupthink. Some of the reasons why this is the case can be found in Wikipedia’s definition.  One other thing about groups. We have ample evidence that individuals in a group setting are less likely to intervene when they witness violence happening to someone else. We’re more likely to act if we witness this when alone. Why is this? We may feel less responsibility when others are around.


We like to keep the good people good and the bad people bad. When those who are considered good do bad things, we can fall prey to denial. It is not possible. I know him. He couldn’t possibly do that. Thus, we deny what we have seen and that leads to the next reason.

Self doubt

Have you ever witnessed something troubling but then wondered if you really saw what you thought you saw? Maybe you catch a glimpse of an adult smacking a child in a parking lot as you drive by. Do you stop and confront? Well, maybe you didn’t really see that. Maybe there is some other explanation that might make this acceptable. When the abuse is done by someone we respect, it is easy to think we must have misconstrued it. And once we hesitate, it is that much harder to activate to do the right thing.

Winsomeness of the abusive person

It is important to remember that the most dangerous abuser is the person who is inter-personally winsome. The reason why a person can have access to others and can get away with abuse is often due to their capacity to put others at ease. Most abuse is not done by those who are revolting to others just because they don’t get opportunity. I know of individuals who were caught in acts of child abuse, questioned by authorities, and so winsome that the investigation was dropped before completed. They provide plausible even highly believable explanations that help the questioner feel at ease. They appear to be open and concerned. They are so good they convince most that such abuse could never happen by their hand. It takes a very expert examiner to catch them in the subtle lies they tell to themselves and to others. Check out Anna Salter’s book on predators if you want to see what she has learned from decades of interviewing known, convicted sex offenders.

It is easy for us to sit in the chair of judgment when we hear of cover-ups and failures to act. These failures to protect children do need to be judged and we ought not shrink back from administering restorative justice for abuse and for the inaction of others. However, let us remember that the work of being light in the midst of darkness has many enemies. Our own weaknesses plus the pressures of our community and the manipulative actions of offenders conspire to make inaction the easier choice.

May we take the high road as we encounter abuse in any form.


Filed under Abuse, Christianity, church and culture, Cognitive biases, Cultural Anthropology, deception

11 responses to “Failures to act: Why we don’t always blow the whistle on abuse

  1. Scott Knapp

    More than one social commentator has made the observation in the midst of teacher/student sex scandals (generally when a female teacher and a male student is involved), that the more attractive the predatory teacher, the less the social outrage and possibly the lighter the judicial consequences. I informally polled a men’s group once about their deepest feelings about this particular issue, and most confessed that at some point in their adolescence they’d had a fantasy or two about an attractive teacher, and in some ways felt a pang of envy for the “victim” and wished a teacher that “hot” had made similar advances toward them in high school. Perhaps the ambivalence between the sinfulness and warped attraction of an abuse situation might also cause one to pause before doing the right thing.

  2. D. Stevenson

    I’ve not been following the Penn State story. I just now read a “timeline” summary. This was ignored for years. What happened? Why is it getting attention now? Did one of the victims gain the strength to stand and demand justice? Call me a cynic, but I’ll bet many of those currently outraged would go the other direction just as quickly if that was the way the group was running.

    • I *believe* it is getting attention now because a high school with a football team reported possible abuse by Sandusky against a player. This report went to law enforcement.

  3. D. Stevenson

    Is the exposure of sex offenders greater now than in the past, say, 10 years ago? If so, I wonder if the internet is making this possible. Is it that the internet enables the “spiral of silence” to be broken? Social media certainly plays a huge part. Perhaps the exposure of Sandusky wouldn’t have happened without our social media culture.

  4. Pingback: Why Institutions Make BAD CHOICES in Regard to Child Abuse | Abuse By Mission Doctor In Bangladesh

  5. Similar things have happened within mission agencies – pedophilia, and the subsequent cover ups in an attempt to protect the mission’s reputation. Do you believe mission agencies should continue operating as usual when this happens? Cast your vote at

    Wes Patterson

  6. Lu Hatton

    My father is 86 years old. He was viciously abused in Chefoo China boarding school. His siblings were abused and then..he sent his own kids to Chefoo where they were abused. When my brother was sent home with injuries, Dad pulled both sibs out of Chefoo, Malaysia and the mission punished my parents for not ‘obeying’. Everyone in our family suffers from the legacy of institutionalized abuse, denial and cover-up. I live near Penn State and this all just sounds so depressingly familiar. Dad and I spoke tonight and he finally named a doctor who abused kids in China. It’s just stunning how much he remembers. He doesn’t want money, he wants justice.

    • Lu, thanks for tellings us a tidbit of your (and your father’s) story. As a board member of GRACE (, I am aware that institutionalized abuse and denial does so much destruction–especially when covered up by so-called christian leaders. Feel free to contact GRACE if they can be of help in any part of making known these abuses.

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