Addressing Sexual Misconduct

Over the past several months, it appears the floodgates have opened on revelations of sexual misconduct, some reaching into the highest corridors of power.

But these are revelations only.  The actual offenses have been going on, largely unreported, for longer than any of us would care to admit.  And that makes it all the more important to take action whenever such allegations surface.

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Some twenty years ago, during the last decade of my working career, I held three senior positions:  superintendent of personnel in a large school board, and then chief executive in two different school jurisdictions.  During that time, I had to deal with a dozen cases of reported sexual misconduct by employees.

The range of offenses included sexual harassment, sexual interference, sexual assault, solicitation of sexual favours, and the exploitation of students in the making and distribution of child pornography.

All the perpetrators were men, either teachers or business/operations employees.  Their victims included adults and children of both genders.  In all but two cases, those children were under the age of seventeen.

Of course, that number of offenders constituted but a tiny fraction of the total of dedicated and professional staff we employed.  But any number is too many.

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Four of the situations resulted in criminal charges being laid against the wrongdoers by police, and all went to trial.  The remaining situations were dealt with internally, involving an array of sanctions ranging from formal reprimand to outright dismissal.  In two cases, after investigation by police and child welfare authorities, the accusers subsequently retracted their allegations and the accused parties were absolved—although with some collateral damage to their public reputation.

In all three jurisdictions we had clear policies in place to affirm the right of every student and every employee to a safe learning and work environment.  Those policies included a reporting mechanism available to any persons who felt they were victimized, or on whose behalf a report was made by a concerned third party.  They also spelt out procedures by which designated managers would shepherd each case to its conclusion.  In every case but two, proper procedures were followed.

Both those situations involved mistakes by two school principals (both of whom were acting in what they believed to be the best interests of their students, who were minors), who decided to investigate the reports of sexual misconduct themselves.  The policy clearly stated—in accordance with provincial law—that, in such situations, it is the duty of the responsible official to contact the police or child welfare authorities, who will handle the investigation.  The principals, whose performance records to that point were unsullied, erred badly.  They were subsequently charged, found guilty, and fined.  Duly reprimanded, they were eventually reinstated to their positions, presumably much the wiser.

One of the perpetrators in those two cases, a teacher, was subsequently cleared of wrongdoing.  The other, a custodian, was eventually charged by police and found guilty at trial.

The sexual harassment situations were investigated internally by my staff, and all parties were given the right to state their cases—although not face-to-face, unless the victims so chose.  In every case, the accused parties admitted to their actions, professed not to realize they had caused offense, expressed remorse, apologized, and vowed not to re-offend.  I issued formal, written reprimands to them and, following a suspension, they were also reinstated.  To my knowledge, there was no repeat of their behaviours.

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In three of the criminal cases, one perpetrator pled guilty, two (a teacher and the aforementioned custodian) were found guilty at trial, and jail sentences were imposed on all of them.  In each case, the school board terminated their employment and I reported the two teachers’ names to the ministry of education, which revoked their teaching certificates.

The fourth criminal case was dismissed by the judge at trial, where he deemed the Crown had failed to prove its case under the law.  That teacher, however, was dismissed by the school board even before the trial, because we had sufficient evidence to determine that he had behaved unprofessionally, without regard for the welfare of the seventeen-year-old student with whom he had engaged in sexual relations.  Whether or not the criminal justice system regarded him as a predator who should not be near vulnerable young people, the school board certainly did.

I subsequently reported that case to the provincial college of teachers (which, by then, had taken over the professional disciplinary role from the ministry).  The college did not revoke the teacher’s certificate—perhaps because he had been found not guilty of a criminal offense.  Those are two decisions I disagree with to this day.

In the two cases where accusers recanted—after sensitive counseling sessions with child welfare authorities—the accused teachers were returned to duty after having been assigned to a central-office work-site during the investigations.  The publicity surrounding their cases, however, had the unfortunate result of leaving them unfairly tarred by the brush of public opinion.

In the wake of the recent spurt of allegations of sexual misconduct against prominent men—and based upon these experiences of mine—it strikes me that we must, indeed, pay attention to every accuser’s claims.  Yes, some may be spurious, some even outright false, but there is no question that such abuses do exist in our schools and workplaces.

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It seems to me, as well, that there is a difference between the exposure of such misbehaviours, with a concomitant imposition of suitable, punitive measures (call that the ethical bar, to protect the most vulnerable among us), and the higher standard required for criminal prosecution (call that the legal bar of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt).  Everyone is entitled to his or her day in court if charges are laid.  But sadly, some predators are never charged.

Even more importantly, everyone is entitled to personal safety in their schools and workplaces.  People in authority must listen and give a voice to those who feel abused and disempowered.  Under my watch, some perpetrators, even if not guilty of offenses under ‘black letter’ law, were indeed guilty of sexual misconduct.  And so, the employer had to act, even if the courts did not.

I’m not sure we did everything right in the situations I encountered those many years back.  Despite our best intentions, people got hurt.  But the one thing we did not do is ignore the pleas for help.

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Nor should any of us now at this watershed moment in time.

Lust and Power

In a 1976 interview for Playboy magazine, the 39th president of the United States, Jimmy Carter, said, “I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.”  This was in response to a question about his views on the Bible’s admonitions about adultery, and was a paraphrase of Christ’s teachings in Matthew 5: 28—“I tell you that anyone who looks on a woman with lust in his heart has already committed adultery.”

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Many were aghast that so prominent a man would admit that, thereby damaging his political standing.  Others saw it as an honest answer from a pious man, acknowledging his imperfections.  Still others saw it as a cynical ploy—embracing both arrogance and humility—wanting to appear virtuous in the face of temptation, thus enhancing his political position.

Whatever it was, it is extremely unlikely Carter was the only man to have sinned in that fashion, although most of us would not choose to admit it.

There is obviously a difference between the so-called evil of lust and the widely-accepted blessing of love—but perhaps not so great a gap as might be imagined.  Lust is relatively easy to define: a strong, sexual desire; a sensuous appetite (regarded by many today as sinful).  Its blunt hunger can be satiated, at least temporarily, through participation in a sex act with someone else, or even alone.

Love is a softer sentiment, usually involving sexual attraction, but also embracing such emotions as friendship, protectiveness, tolerance, forgiveness, happiness, fulfilment, and mutual respect.  It is something that, although freely given, must also be earned.  In a truly loving relationship, the quest for love is never satiated, but yearned for, and given, all the more.

It cannot be disputed that the propagation of our species has relied upon the sexual attraction between men and women, their lust for each other.  If two people also found love in their coupling, that was a bonus.  Love for one another was not required in order to produce offspring.

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Biologically speaking, lust can drive a person to have sexual relations with more than one partner of either gender, and more than once with each.  And so it is with love.  There is no biological impediment to falling in love with, and entering into a loving relationship with, multiple partners—although obviously, no children will result from a union of partners of the same gender.

Over time, and for a multitude of reasons, monogamous marriages became the norm in our culture.  Although men and women could fall in love with more than one person, the law allowed us to marry but one at a time.  However, the standing of each person in the conjugal union was unequal.  For a long time, women were considered to be, if not the property of their husbands, at least subordinate to them.  Power resided with the men. That status has changed ever so slowly, only beginning a hundred years or so ago.

At the time the Dominion of Canada was formed, a decade before the birth of the great Republic to the south, our fathers of confederation and their founding fathers espoused equality for all.  But that noble ideal was to be applied only to the propertied classes—almost all of whom were male, white, rich, and protestant.  Others of different gender, race, wealth, and religion were scarcely considered, except as property, workers, or servants.

Money and power were all that really mattered, and both resided with men.

Thus, it continued to be possible for men who lusted after women (or other men, or children) to prey upon them with relative impunity.  Might makes right, as the adage has it, and fear can make cowards of us all.  For the victims, suffering the abuse in silence was often more palatable than facing the public shaming and loss of employment that would crush them if they complained—assuming they would have been believed in the first place.

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Jimmy Carter was honest in his admission.  But I wonder, is it possible all men harbour such thoughts from time to time, even if only a relatively small number act on them?  I cast no stones at him.

I also wonder, does power corrupt only men?  Would women who come to power be immune to its seductive persuasions?  And would any act on them?

Sexual misbehaviour of any sort is unacceptable, a monstrous issue only now being brought to the broader public arena.  But I believe it is power, not lust, that is the driving force behind such behaviour.  Any of us might experience lustful feelings, just as any of us might fall in love.  But only the most powerful, the most arrogant, the most sociopathic among us would mobilize those feelings into unwanted actions, forced upon unwilling victims, solely for our own gratification.

It is as if the predators, when seized by a biological imperative, say to themselves, Because I can, I will.  And who is to deny me?

And so, it is time, as many are saying—time to expose and shame those who are found guilty of transgressions, time to re-assess the accepted perquisites of power, time to educate our young people as to what is deemed acceptable in social intercourse, time to redefine the relationship between men and women.

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It is more than time.