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When an institution is facing a scandal, how it acts to redress wrongdoing is crucial to both its legal and public standing. One of the first tasks before the newly appointed president at Penn State was to communicate certain messages of reassurances to a community in turmoil over the sexual abuse allegations against former football coach Jerry Sandusky. The question facing Penn State is: “What are you doing to reach out to the family members and the sexual abuse victims?” says Raymond Boucher, a partner at Kiesel Boucher & Larson and the lead attorney for plaintiffs who brought sexual abuse claims against the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles. “The law wants to promote the process of taking remedial steps,” says Boucher, who points out that such steps “can’t be used as an admission of responsibility or guilt.” On Monday, the university posted a message from new president Rodney Erickson, which read, in part: “We will be respectful and sensitive to the victims and their families. We will seek appropriate ways to foster healing and raise broader awareness of the issue of sexual abuse.” According to university spokesperson Bill Mahon, Penn State is “promoting the hotlines announced by the Attorney General’s office on our news web site and encouraging victims to take advantage of it,” he said in an email. Mahon said that the identities of victims “are not known to the university.” He also said that university is actively “discussing various options and receiving good suggestions from the public.” Boucher has two main recommendations for Penn State, and other institutions facing similar crises. The first is to make a public statement and create a hotline for victims and families in order to make psychiatric services available to them, he says. Second, Penn State should also reach out to the people in charge at The Second Mile, and ask that a letter be sent to families that makes them aware of the “telltale signs of childhood sexual abuse,” in the event they believe their child may have been abused. He adds that it should be “a simple letter that reaches out and says we’re here. . . and we want to provide assistance.” Boucher says this is all the more important given that Second Mile, the charity that Sandusky founded, has drawn children from at-risk backgrounds, and poor families are less likely to have access to those resources. The benefits of reaching out to victims at this point are three-fold, Boucher explains: the school does the right thing; they aren’t held responsible for it; and they can even reduce their exposure in the civil litigation that many say is very likely to be on the horizon. For victims, having access to medical and psychiatric services is imperative, Boucher says. “The lifelong prison that victims of childhood sexual abuse live in is very real,” he points out. The risk of suicide among kids who have been sexually abused is “extremely high,” says Boucher. The longer they live in silence, there is also a greater chance that survivors of sexual abuse will use alcohol or drugs “in a manner that is likely to lead to their death,” he says. At the core of sexual abuse against children is the fact that an adult has chosen to put his or her own desires above a child’s “most basic need for safety and security and care,” explains Mitru Ciarlante, director of the youth initiative at the National Center for Victims of Crime. Part of repairing that harm, she says, is putting children’s needs first and “making frequent, consistent, verbal reassurances to the child about what’s being done to keep them safe.” Ciarlante says it’s also important to “create opportunities and chances” for victims and their families to be heard, if they so choose. At Penn State, “the victims were in no way figuring into the administration’s thinking,” says Lawrence Z. Kotler, an attorney who specializes in sexual abuse litigation at Carlin & Ward in New Jersey. Now, he says, the school’s job is to support victims, let them know that “the person who did this will be held to account,” and communicate to them “that changes are being made and their rights and their well-being are foremost in people’s minds.” Though not a perfect analogy to the Penn State case, Kotler says Virginia Tech’s response after the April 2007 campus shooting presents a “textbook case” of a proactive response from a school in the wake of tragedy. The college established support groups and a fund for victims, among other steps. Kotler stresses that such steps would not reduce Penn State’s liability for what already occurred, but nor would it worsen their situation. On the contrary, he says, such efforts end up being helpful to both the victims and the institution. See also: “Penn State Abuse Case Highlights Changes in Media, Legal Attitudes,” CorpCounsel, November 2011.

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