The Monitor's View

Penn State and Herman Cain: sex charges handled badly

Using money or secrecy to sweep a sex charge under the rug can often lead to bigger problems. Or the accused is denied justice. Institutional biases must not get in the way.

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Are there times when sexual wrongdoing – or charges of such offenses – should be kept secret?

The question is important in light of two high-profile cases in which organizations have allegedly hushed up complaints against an employee over alleged sexual misdeeds.

In one case, GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain is now trying to fend off reports that at least two women accused him of sexual harassment in the 1990s when he headed the National Restaurant Association. The allegations were reportedly resolved with payments to the women and agreements of confidentiality.

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The other case involves grand jury indictments this week against two Penn State officials for perjury and for failing to notify law enforcement authorities of child sexual abuse allegations against Jerry Sandusky, a former assistant to famed coach Joe Paterno. Mr. Sandusky himself faces multiple charges of child sex abuse.

In both cases, the institutions supposedly put secrecy above all else, most likely to avoid adverse publicity, expensive lawsuits, or disruptions in the institution.

In many coverups over sex charges, there is always a risk that an alleged offender will remain inadequately punished or undeterred from committing a similar offense – assuming he or she is guilty. Often the rush to sweep an allegation under the rug avoids a finding of guilt or innocence or prevents any attempt to correct an offender’s behavior.

Sometimes such concealment is justified to protect a victim of sexual harassment, rape, or similar violation. States, for example, don’t release the names of people who make rape charges. And employees who complain about sexual harassment or sexual advances often want to avoid making waves or hurting their careers over such disputes.

Institutions in many cases try to uphold individual rights, whether it is a presumption of innocence or a right to privacy. But such rights must also be balanced against the interests of other workers and society in general if an accused is truly a potential repeat offender.

Simply paying money for a sex allegation to go away or easing the accused out of a position can result in someone else paying the consequences later.

Courts are well placed to find that balance between rights and the collective interest. But such a judicious approach falters when a private institution doesn’t even make an attempt at it. Instead, it is easy to put reputation, stockholders, donors, or other concerns ahead of individual rights or prevention of crime.

Colleges and universities like Penn State have a particular problem with cases of alleged harassment or rape. Young people are often sexually active or unaware of social and legal barriers for gender behavior. When should a school, for example, handle a sex-related accusation itself, rather than take it straight to law enforcement? Are schools even capable of discerning false accusations or whether someone is a real sexual predator?

Both the Penn State and Herman Cain cases should stir every private institution to review its procedures for handling sex-related accusations. And managers need regular training to live up to the complex Supreme Court guidelines for determining sexual harassment.

Institutional self-interest must be avoided if there is to be justice for either the accused or accuser in a sex case, as well as protection for others.

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