June 24, 2018
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What will be the legacy of our abuse?

Erik Steele
By Dr. Erik Steele

In a few weeks it will have been 12 months since my community learned that one of its favorite ministers had allegedly been molesting some of our children for many years. I will not be surprised if the one year anniversary of his exposure and subsequent suicide passes quietly, because our prevailing community response to the events has been relative silence.

That silence is stunning when compared to the dimensions of this travesty of our trust. That minister was a sheriff’s deputy who had regular access to young male prisoners at the county jail. He was the minister of a local church and had affiliations with a local university and health care organizations. All were places where he had access to other young males. We trusted and honored him. Many of us missed the signals he was a predator and passed up or missed opportunities to stop him years ago. We missed the fact some of his credentials were fraudulent.

That I know of, there has been no publicly disclosed investigation regarding how all of this happened, either from the organizations for whom the minister worked or in the community at large. We don’t know whether the organizations for which he worked have conducted such investigations internally, or if they did, what the results were. The only investigation we know of that was publicly released was a state police investigation. That report, however, is really a collection of documents and interviews with many names removed, not an investigation of what happened and how it happened. By way of contrast, read the Freeh report about the sexual abuse scandal at Penn State.

More importantly, that means we don’t know what steps have been taken in organizations providing services to our children to reduce the risk of this all happening again. Did they change processes or policies, train staff in abuse recognition and reporting or do anything else after we discovered what was going on? We just don’t know what parents, teachers, organizations, organization leaders, organizational boards of trustees or anyone else has learned from this abuse of our children.

It is as though we have had a yearlong dinner together during which we talked about everything but the cow manure table centerpiece, and when a child at the table asked what stinks, the adults just put their heads down and went on eating.

As a result, if the children around our community table were to ask us instead what we have done to reduce the risk that some of them will be the next victims of the next abuser, it is unclear to me we could answer their question. Could we — their guardians — credibly reassure them that they are safer than the children before them, or that we will honor the sacrifice of previous victims by doing more to prevent others from suffering their fate? Until we can, it is unclear to me that we have done our jobs as as community leaders, let alone as parents.

So, I am asking the leaders of the organizations in my community — and especially those organizations with whom this abuser had a formal role — to get to the work of answering that question from our children. In particular, those organizations charged with the care of our children — whether young prisoners, students, parishioners, patients or whatever — have a moral obligation to answer that question. (Every other community should do the same — all have had abusers in their midst, and will again.)

Leaders of the organizations for whom this latest abuser worked should step forward to lead this community work. Ideally, they should share the results of their internal reviews of the abuser’s role in their organization. At a minimum, they should share what they will be doing differently in the future to protect our children in their charge, and help all of us learn what we should be doing differently.

We might all learn a lot from such a process, at least enough to clear the air, and perhaps enough to be able to trust again. Most importantly, when our children ask us what we have done to protect them from the fate of other children, we might have real answers that make a difference.

Erik Steele, a physician in Bangor, is chief medical officer of Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems.

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