Empathy Requires that We All Speak Out — Silence is Not an Option

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The sexual abuse and rape scandals at Pennsylvania State University and within the Catholic Church are terrible. Instead of just dismissing them as aberrations, we should learn what to do differently, so we can prevent future abuse.

Since I was very small, I have struggled a great deal with the selfishness, lack of empathy and willingness of so many people to stand by and allow other living beings to suffer. I do not understand this type of behavior. Humans are not only hardwired for caring (for more on this, see “Sharing the Pain is Good”), but such caring is also a moral imperative. If this is indeed the case, then what is going on in our current society? Why are so many people focusing solely on themselves, while ignoring the suffering of those around them? Once again, I look to current events for clues, and what I find are the ongoing Penn State and Catholic Church sexual abuse and rape scandals. I’ve written before about the Penn State outrage (see “The Penn State Scandal: Could Addressing Evil Have Helped Prevent It?”) because it seemed to exemplify a great deal about human nature, but apparently I’m not done with it yet.

For those who are unaware, the Penn State scandal was in the news again recently because former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was just convicted of 45 counts of child sexual abuse. Although the whole situation is reprehensible and heinous, one of the more disturbing aspects to it is that other people in power knew what was going on and did nothing.

Head coach Joe Paterno and Penn State University president Graham Spanier both knew about the allegations, as did several other university officials. And it gets even worse. Not only did they do nothing but it recently came out that Spanier actively decided not to inform the police of a 2001 molestation incident. The rationale given was that it would be more “humane” not to do so, but the real reason for his refusal to take action was clearly on behalf of the university, the football program and, subsequently, himself. Little if any consideration was given to the boy allegedly victimized in the incident, or for other boys who might later be in harm’s way.

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Similar behavior has been exhibited by the Catholic Church. In fact, the same day a jury found Jerry Sandusky guilty, another jury convicted Monsignor William J. Lynn of child endangerment. It was the first criminal conviction of a Roman Catholic Church official in the United States for covering up sexual abuses. For years, Catholic officials turned a blind eye while numerous priests abused their positions and their parishioners, many of them children. If the officials did anything at all, they usually just transferred the offenders in the hope that the problem would go away. Perhaps they too felt it was a more “humane” solution.

Given the scope of the tragedies, the vast amount of human suffering and the almost certainty that these men knew that what was going on was wrong, how are we to make sense of such repugnant behavior on the part of Catholic Church authorities, Spanier and others? Why do people continue to support abusers and bullies in their mistreatment of others? In her landmark book, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence — From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK](?), first published in 1992, psychiatrist Judith Herman gives an explanation:

It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He [sic] appeals to the universal desire to see, hear and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement and remembering.

So there it is. It all goes back to empathy. If you choose to empathize with someone, you put yourself at risk for feeling uncomfortable emotions. You may have to feel the terror of a child who doesn’t know how to stop what is happening, the shame and humiliation often experienced after being abused, and the gut-wrenching sadness at the loss of innocence. Such feelings are so difficult that many people try to avoid them at all costs. Thus, instead of trying to take action and stop abuse, a lot of people prefer to justify, minimize or even dismiss it. As Herman points out, all the perpetrator asks from us is our silence. Victims expect emotional connection, discomfort and courage. These are not easy things to give.

What are we to do about this? How do we teach people to take action? How does a society insist upon empathy? There are ways to teach empathy and I think we do a pretty good job of that with girls. However, in all honesty, it is with boys that we need to improve. Let’s be frank: if the scandals I’ve been discussing were a reality show, they could easily be called ‘Men Behaving Badly’. Moreover, whenever a member of Congress gets caught in a human abuse scandal, they are almost always male. So, it is with boys that we need the most empathy work.

One of the ways we can teach boys empathy is to do what is called perspective-taking. Instead of allowing them to think only of themselves, start asking them how other people feel — in the books they’ve been reading, television shows they’ve been watching, sports they’ve been playing, and situations they’ve been experiencing. Try to get them in touch with not only their own emotions, but also those of others. Psychologist Terry Real deals a lot with issues concerning men and boys. One of the things he talks about is insisting that his sons talk about the emotional parts of their day at the dinner table. In fact, because he sees emotional connection as important, he refuses to allow them to play sports unless they also talk about their feelings. Surely most of us can do that.

Another way to increase empathy is to talk about what happens when it’s missing. The Penn State and Catholic Church scandals are great examples. If the two venerated institutions had demonstrated empathy for the earliest victims of the sexual abuse and rape instigated by Sandusky and various priests, they could have nipped both situations in the bud. Neither Sandusky nor the priests would have been allowed to keep abusing and perhaps may have even gotten the help they needed. Moreover, victims would have been given justice and whatever help they required (like counseling) to pick up the pieces of their lives. Instead, what happened was that by exhibiting severe empathic failures, a number of people suffered needlessly, lots of money was spent in the criminal justice system, careers were ruined and the reputations of both institutions were severely damaged. And in the end, empathy, or at least the semblance of it, was forced upon those who initially resisted it.

Finally, we need to do better with victims on a societal level. Instead of being tempted to immediately take the side of the accused perpetrator, perhaps we should not rush to judgment, but instead consider how rare it is for people to make up instances of abuse. I cannot tell you how much vitriol I’ve seen leveled at people (usually women) who make accusations of abuse at people who are beloved. This happens a lot with sports figures, like Sandusky, and clergy members, like priests and, more recently, Creflo Dollar. Empathy demands that, at the very least, those of us with minimal knowledge of the circumstances stay completely out of it and render no opinion, rather than take sides. Moreover, we should work to improve existing services for victims.

There are a lot of us on planet Earth and, if we are to survive, we all must work together. So far we haven’t done as well as we should have in cooperation and taking good care of each other. Consequently, perhaps we should take these scandals as lessons in what to do differently. Silence is no longer an option. Instead we must be active and engaged. If we do that, the number of perpetrators will dwindle and the burden of pain will be less.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Pat Orner Oliver on .

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