Enablers and Bystanders: Are They Key to Addressing the Sex Abuse Crisis?

This week we revisit a thought-provoking post we first published in fall 2020. It shares ideas from law professor Amos Guiora, who studies the pivotal role of enablers and bystanders in allowing sexual assaults to occur.

By Erin O’Donnell
Editor, Awake Blog

The Vatican’s McCarrick Report, released in November 2020, led many Catholics to ask how Theodore McCarrick rose through the ranks of the Church hierarchy despite the rumors of his sexual abuse of seminarians. The report suggests that some people knew abuse was happening, but did not act to prevent it. Those who were aware included church leaders ranging from priests to bishops to popes. For example, one section of the report describes a dinner in 1990, when a bishop and priest witnessed McCarrick groping an obviously stunned seminarian seated next to him at the table. The witnesses abruptly left and did not report this behavior to church officials.

What do such people—who are not predators themselves, but allow predators to operate—owe to the victims who are harmed? This is one of the questions considered by Amos Guiora, professor at the S.J. Quinney College of Law, University of Utah, and author of Armies of Enablers: Survivor Stories of Complicity and Betrayal in Sexual Assaults. In a previous book, Guiora (pictured above) examined his parents’ and grandparents’ experiences as Hungarian Jews in the Holocaust, and the role played by bystanders who chose not to intervene. When that book was complete, his editor suggested that he turn his attention to bystanders in sexual abuse cases. “I never ever intended to get into this,” Guiora says. “This is all serendipity.”

Meeting sexual abuse survivors transformed his life and work. Guiora conducted extensive interviews with more than 20 survivors, including gymnasts at Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics who were abused by team doctor Larry Nassar, athletes at Ohio State University abused by team doctor Richard Strauss, and survivors of abuse in the Catholic Church.

Other survivors frequently reach out to Guiora when they encounter his book. Working on behalf of sexual abuse survivors is not a path he could have predicted for himself, but “I’m doing this because I’ve been entrusted with their stories,” he says. “I feel a little like a trustee.”

What Is a Bystander? an Enabler?

Guiora defines a bystander as a “person who is physically present when another person is in peril, who sees that person in peril, and has, from a legal perspective, knowledge,” Guiora explains. “The second part of that test is that the person has the capability to act.” Bystanders need not put their own safety at risk to intervene in a potentially harmful situation, he adds: “The only thing we want you to do is to dial 911.”

He gives an account shared by survivor Peter Pollard who in 1967 was a 16-year-old altar boy in Massachusetts. Pollard was alone in the church basement after the Easter vigil with his abuser, Rev. George Rosenkrantz, when the pastor walked in and saw the early stages of a sexual act. According to Pollard, the pastor simply asked Rosenkrantz to switch off the light when they were done.  

In contrast, the enabler may not see the abuse, but “knows what’s going on and protects the institution,” Guiora says. As an example, Guiora shares the story of a gymnast on the Michigan State University gymnastics team who told a coach that she was being abused by team doctor Larry Nassar and wanted to report him to authorities. The coach told the young woman that if she made a report, the coach would have to share this information with the gymnast’s parents (which Guiora notes was untrue, because the athlete was an adult at the time). The coach urged the gymnast to think about how a report would affect Nassar’s family and suggested that she could lose her scholarship, all efforts to protect the team and Michigan State. Guiora also points to Cardinal Bernard Law of the Archdiocese of Boston, who received damning reports about serial predators such as Fr. John Geoghan, yet moved Geoghan from parish to parish to avoid scandal, despite the fact that these roles gave him access to young boys. “To use a sports analogy, I would call Cardinal Law a first-team enabler,” Guiora says.

In his interviews with survivors, Guiora was surprised to learn that their anger is less often directed at the perpetrator or abuser, “but they are outraged by the enabler,” he says. Guiora began to ask survivors what they had expected of the enablers. “The answer that they all gave me was that they wanted to be protected,” Guiora explains. Yet the enablers in cases such as McCarrick’s are so focused on protecting their institution that “they don’t care for a second about the victims.”

What Can We Do About Bystanders and Enablers?

Through his research and writing, Guiora has developed three main steps that he believes can halt the protection of predators by institutions such as the Catholic Church.

  1. Criminalize bystanders and enablers. Over the last three years, Guiora has worked on efforts to establish laws that make it illegal to be a bystander who does not intervene; these laws now exist in more than 28 countries, and in multiple states including Wisconsin. In Utah, where Guiora is based, legislation has been introduced that would allow bystanders to be charged with a Class B misdemeanor, which carries the possibility of six months in jail. Guiora says these laws apply to a broad range of bystanders—not only those who witness sexual abuse, but also those who see people in other types of danger, such as drug overdoses.

    Creating laws that address enabling behavior is a harder task, one that Guiora says he is just beginning to pursue. Crimes of omission—in which someone fails to act—are more complicated to prosecute than crimes of commission, and there’s also the risk of  such laws being used to target ethnic and minority communities, Guiora says. Still, the conduct of enablers “must be criminalized,” he says. “Otherwise this’ll happen again, today, tomorrow, and on Sunday.”
  2. Educate kids and teens about bystanding and enabling. Guiora once gave a talk to 800 seventh and ninth graders in Salt Lake City about bystanding behavior in the Holocaust, and found that the experience gave him hope. He suggests that students at Catholic institutions could benefit. “Educating children regarding a responsibility to act would empower them and their classmates when they see or know of another person’s distress,” Guiora says. “The earlier the theme of responsibility to others can be directly addressed, the more ingrained it will be in their minds when they confront situations requiring action.” He hopes that teaching young people about these ideas will increase the possibility that those “in peril will not be abandoned, unlike those I interviewed.”
  3. Inform community leaders and others. Guiora conducts training sessions on the topic of bystanders and enablers for prosecutors, judges, and sexual assault advocates around the country. He also hopes to take this information to police and the general public, to help all understand the pivotal role played by bystanders and enablers in cases of sexual abuse and other criminal behavior. “The more we have people aware of the enabler and the bystander,” he says, “the better off we all are.”

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is armies-of-enablers-cover.png
For this book, published in August 2020, Amos Guiora interviewed more than 20 sexual abuse survivors.

Erin O’Donnell is a freelance journalist and member of Saints Peter and Paul Parish. She lives on Milwaukee’s East Side with her husband and two sons.

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