Imagine a 15-year-old girl attending her high school homecoming dance. For one girl in October 2009 in Richmond, California, the night turned into a horrible excursion into hell. The girl was raped and beaten by 7 to 10 men and “boys.” Those arrested by police included boys aged 15, 16 and 17 and men aged 19 and 21.
Worse, if there can even be such a thing as “worse,” the event was witnessed by up to an estimated 20 bystanders. As word of the rape spread, it was reported that more came to watch. None did anything to stop the attack or report it to authorities. It was reported that some allegedly laughed and some even allegedly took pictures with their cell phones.
The event was significant for getting the phrase “bystander effect” into the media for a while.
Last week the Catholic sex abuse scandal also became news. According to Wikipedia, “much of the scandal focused around the actions of some members of the Catholic hierarchy who did not report the crimes to legal authorities and reassigned the offenders to other locations where they continued to have contact with minors, giving them the opportunity to continue their sexual abuse.”
An extremely troubling response from the Vatican in Sept. 2009 estimated that “only” 1.5%-5% of Catholic clergy were involved in child sex abuse. (Remember – this is the incidence rate they gave themselves. No doubt the actual rate could be even higher.) The response also indicated that the church was “busy cleaning its own house” and in a logically spurious argument that completely avoids personal responsibility claimed that sex abuse in other churches occurred at a higher rate.
In the Richmond incident, bystanders did nothing to prevent a crime in progress. In the Catholic sex abuse scandal, persons in positions of authority did not report the possibility of crimes when they were discovered.
I submit that both of these examples are cut from the very same cloth.
Aside from resolving these ongoing cases by helping the victims and punishing the guilty, the primary question becomes: What do we do now?
My proposal is something I’d like to call the “do the right thing” law. Or perhaps it could be known as The Bystander Law.
The tragedy in the Richmond case is that our justice system will only prosecute actual participants in the attack. The witnesses who stood by and did nothing, spread the word to others, and/or enjoyed the show will never be held accountable for what they have done. Similarly, in the sex abuse case, persons who facilitated protection of the guilty who then went on to commit additional offenses will also never be held accountable.
That lack of accountability is unacceptable. We need a solution with more teeth.
In short, a “do the right thing” law would hold witnesses and abettors fully accountable as if they committed the act themselves.
Come across a rape in progress? Immediately report the act or you will face the same penalty of law as if you were the one who committed the act. If the rapist gets eight years, the witness who did nothing should also get eight years.
If you are an official in the Catholic church and receive allegations of sex abuse, immediately turn them over to the police. Fail to do so and you will be held accountable for that person’s actions from then on. Fail to turn over allegations of abuse to the proper authorities and you should go to jail. These reported incidents are not “internal matters” to be handled as the church sees fit. They are crimes. The church has clearly demonstrated it is unfit to investigate them.
This is important. The people who did nothing, laughed, took photographs, or facilitated additional cases of abuse are still out there among us.
I don’t give a shit if psychologists and social scientists say there is a so-called “bystander effect” or not. We need a law that says “do the right thing or you will pay.” Or else next time it might be you or your own little girl that gets attacked for hours while society stands by and does nothing.