Similar patterns of behavior emerge in sex abuse scandals

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How organizational practices enabled molesters, until victims forced changes
One morning in 1969, a boy nearly ignited a sex abuse scandal in Wilmington, Del., by showing up late for school.

“This has gotta stop,” the middle school’s assistant principal, Robert Cline, said as he walked the boy to his office. The boy explained that he’d overslept again because he had stayed late at a teacher’s apartment. That set off a string of questions from Cline for which each answer got worse: Mr. Bittenbender helps us with homework. Yes, other boys go to his apartment. Well, he also gives us massages. Yes, the massages go down there.

Cline summoned more boys; they told the same story. Then came Carlton Bittenbender. He said he was just trying to befriend some neglected kids. Then he signed a resignation letter.

On his way out of town, Bittenbender dropped by an Episcopal church that sponsored the Boy Scout troop for which Bittenbender was Scoutmaster. He told the pastor about the trouble at school and that he’d done the same thing with a couple of Scouts. The pastor told the troop leaders, who confirmed the story with the boys.

No one talked to other students or scouts to see if they’d been molested; no one called police, and no one informed Boy Scout headquarters. Bittenbender went on to teach in Connecticut and to lead Scout troops in Rhode Island and Virginia. At each of those last two stops, he was later convicted of molesting Scouts.

While that chain of events might seem shocking today, those school, church and troop leaders acted in the typical fashion of the time. As for today, although the Penn State and Catholic Church sex-abuse scandals compel people to demand, “How could this happen?”, what happened in those institutions is not so unusual.

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