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Learning from Columbia sex abuse cover up

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Columbia University has recently been rocked by allegations of a cover up of sexual abuse by one of its obstetrician/gynaecologists. After a long and arduous process, Dr Robert Hadden (65), has been sentenced to 20 years in jail for sexually assaulting more than 200 of his patients.

As I write this article, hundreds more women are coming forward with reports of abuse. This would make Hadden one of the worst sexual predators in American history.

According to an article that appeared in The Intelligencer on 12 September 2023, Columbia University’s medical department acting head was alerted to the problem in 1993, when a woman reported sexual abuse during a pelvic examination. After a cursory check with Hadden’s assistant, who claimed she saw nothing, he let the matter drop. This was one of the first in a string of reports, some in writing, that were brought to their notice over the next three decades. Columbia was involved in consistently covering up reports, turning a blind eye to this doctor’s criminal conduct, and denying accountability at every step. It continued to employ the doctor, putting endless patients at risk of abuse. At this stage, Columbia has agreed to pay $236.5 million (R4.5 billion) to resolve lawsuits brought by 226 of his victims, while admitting no fault and placing the blame squarely on Hadden.

It’s natural to be shocked and horrified when reading this. We hold ourselves above this kind of behaviour, and would never imagine that we or any heads of our institutions could act in a similar manner. Though we all would want to do the right thing, we may find ourselves hampered by the complex issue of trust. In his book, Talking to Strangers, Malcolm Gladwell explores the question of trust within organisations, believing that they cannot function without trust. Employees need to feel trusted in order to fulfil their tasks. People need to be given the benefit of the doubt, and management cannot be second guessing their employees at every turn. In larger organisations, the need for trust becomes even greater. When an issue comes up, management needs to be able to trust the judgement of lower-level management in regards to issues concerning members of their team.

Let’s hypothesise for a minute. What if you’re the chief executive or head of a local school, shul, youth movement, or prominent communal organisation? You have given years of your life to building this organisation, which is extremely close to your heart. Now, an allegation of sexual abuse is made against one of your staff members, volunteers, or congregants. Without doubt, the foundation of your world would be shaken and you would find it immensely difficult to believe that it could be possible.

It may be someone who you know well, is integral to the functioning of your organisation, and who you trust implicitly. However, your natural inclination to trust, which is a necessary component of leadership, may unconsciously trip you up. You may find yourself giving the person the benefit of the doubt in spite of the seriousness of the allegation. You may even get caught up in protecting them and advocating for them and their innocence. This may lead you down a dark tunnel, which can ultimately result in your involvement in a cover up and sometimes in cases of sexual abuse, victim blaming. Furthermore, if the individual is a wealthy and significant contributor to your institution, it would affect your objectivity, and you may be inclined to protect the perpetrator in order to guarantee their financial support. Other considerations which might come into play could be your institution’s legal liability for these incidences, as well as the reputational damage your institution may suffer.

This may sound far-fetched but this is exactly the route followed by Columbia, a highly acclaimed university, over a 30-year period. When charges were pressed, it failed to hand over evidence in its possession in spite of a subpoena to do so, and waited months to inform its patients that Hadden was no longer working. It finally sent out a matter-of-fact letter without giving the real reason for his dismissal. This cover up meant that many other victims remained unaware of the allegations, and were thus prevented from coming forward and strengthening the case that the prosecutors were trying to build.

Let’s bring this back home again. Now you as chief executive need to act. Your duty of care extends to all members of the organisation, but through the trust dynamic in which you are caught, you may end up being single-minded about protecting the alleged offender to the detriment of the other parties within your organisation. By doing this, the victim’s complaints are dismissed.

If the case is one of sexual abuse, as with the Columbia University scandal, you may decide to set up an internal panel of people from within your institution to hear the case and resolve it quietly. This may sound wise, but it has serious problems. The first is that this body would be wholly untrained and inexperienced in dealing with sexual abuse cases. Without extensive training on the issue of abuse, the nature of a sexual predator, grooming, and the high likelihood of reoffending, such a board would clearly be ill-equipped to manage such a case. Though the board members may believe that they have dealt with the problem effectively and that the organisation is now safe, they don’t know that most sexual predators are masterful at covering their tracks and will generally find ways to continue to offend regardless of any measures they have put in place to stop them.

Here’s what we all need to learn, particularly those of us with leadership positions in our community. When you get repeated messages about someone in your organisation that are troubling, you have to be willing to step in early. You need to set aside your trust for the moment, and set up a mechanism to investigate the matter. You have to raise your awareness about the issue of sexual abuse, and strengthen your willingness to explore the matter early on in the process. This is especially relevant when there are a number of similar reports being brought to your attention.

You need to be a trailblazer, and understand that your natural default position of trust may work to the detriment of all parties in your organisation, including yourself. G-d forbid you should end up in the position that Columbia University now finds itself in. Rather act swiftly with the intention of doing what’s right and protecting those who deserve it most.

  • Wendy Hendler is the co-founder and director of Koleinu SA, the helpline for victims of abuse in the South African Jewish community. The helpline number is 011 264 0341, operating Sunday to Thursday from 09:00 to 22:00 and after Shabbat until midnight.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Alan Hirsch

    Sep 21, 2023 at 12:46 pm

    Good story, but I think she meant R4.5 billion.

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