Monday, December 5, 2011

Lessons from the Syracuse University Sexual Abuse Scandal

The latest in the sports program sexual abuse scandals is the resurfacing of a 2005 allegation against Syracuse University Associate Head Men’s Basketball Coach Bernie Fine about sexual abuse of a minor, now 39, dating back to the 1980’s and 1990’s. The Syracuse Police have now opened an investigation into the matter.

In a letter to Syracuse University Alumni dated 11/18/11, Chancellor Nancy Cantor stated:

"On hearing of the allegations [in 2005], the University immediately launched its own comprehensive investigation through its legal counsel. The nearly four-month long investigation included a number of interviews with people the individual said would support his claims. All of those identified by him denied any knowledge of wrongful conduct by the associate coach. At the end of the investigation, as we were unable to find any corroboration of the allegations, the case was closed."

The problem with this is that in matters of sexual abuse there are rarely any witnesses since it is done in secret and even when there are witnesses, they are often  afraid to come forward because of the powerful position of the abuser, and for those who are victims,  shame, self-blame and fear of not being believed .

Chancellor Cantor went on to explain:

 "The dilemma in any situation like this, of course, is that—without corroborating facts, witnesses or confessions —one must avoid an unfair rush to judgment."

While it is understandable that the administration would not want an unfair rush to judgment, it ends up being an unfair bias against the victim since it is rare for sexual molesters to confess and rare to have physical evidence to corroborate a victim's disclosure.  There are procedures that experts  use to evaluate the disclosures of accusers to determine the validity of a sexual abuse allegation.   Experts should be consulted when organizations are evaluating a sexual abuse complaint.

On November 27, Chancellor Cantor sent out another e-mail to the entire SU community:

"Tonight, in the wake of troubling new allegations that emerged in the media today, I am writing to let you know that Bernie Fine’s employment at the University has been terminated effective immediately... Frankly, the events of the past week have shaken us all… Like the media review of the case a few years earlier, no other witnesses came forward during the university investigation, and those who felt they knew Bernie best could not imagine what has unfolded." 

The troubling part of this is the implication that during the university investigation, the impressions of "those who felt they knew Bernie best" were taken into consideration.  Unfortunately, pedophiles can be expert at befriending and endearing themselves to people and appearing beyond reproach.  

We must educate the public about the dynamics of pedophiles and other sex offenders so that they will have more than impressions to guide them to help decide when to take action.  According to Darkness to Light, an organization dedicated to ending child sexual abuse, "in more than 90% of sexual abuse cases the child and the child's family know and trust the abuser."*   Given this statistic, we must not make decisions about who can be trusted with our children based solely on our impressions.

Stop it Now, as part of its efforts to prevent child sexual abuse, has tip sheets,
"Behaviors to Watch for When Adults Are With Children" and  "Signs That an Adult May Be At-Risk to Harm a Child"  One way we can all take action is to share these tip sheets with our family, friends, colleagues and clients.

 If you know of other  resources to educate the public about sex offenders, please share it with us.


  1. Andrea, thank you for this post.

    I am hopeful that the publicity emerging from these cases will be an opportunity for the public to understand how common child sexual abuse actually is. I wrote a similar piece about what is happening on the Penn State campus and linked to several articles and resources to help people learn more about the topic. Please feel free to link to the article, or to share the resources I provided in it in your own.

    If interested, you can find my post here:

    Thanks again for this cogent and timely article.

  2. Hi Ann,

    Thanks for sharing your article. You make poignant comments as a therapist and Penn State alum who was doing research on trauma at the University at the time of some of the sexual abuse incidents. How sadly ironic!

    I appreciate your call to action and the resources you share.


  3. "Like the media review of the case a few years earlier, no other witnesses came forward during the university investigation, and those who felt they knew Bernie best could not imagine what has unfolded."

    Both of these are troubling reasons, I agree. Thank you for the links.

  4. Dear Bike Lady,

    You're welcome! Thanks for your comments.