To protect the most vulnerable

November 12th, 2011 by gelenberg Leave a reply »

Rape is a terrible crime against anyone. Sexual abuse of children is among the worst. It is often perpetrated by adults whom the child trusts and respects. And it leaves scars on the brain and psyche that may never heal.

This is a time of soul searching at Penn State. Students, staff, and faculty are hurt, angry, confused, and shaken by the swirling story of sexually abused children. I am new to Penn State, but in my almost-two years here, I have been deeply impressed by the talent, energy, loyalty, decency, and commitment of the Penn State community. And our university has an amazingly dedicated alumni and donor base throughout the country.

I know no more than what I read and hear from the news media. Like everyone, I am left to conjecture about who did what and why. I cannot pass judgment on anyone, nor would I wish to. But right now it appears that children were sexually exploited, and some people who could have taken early steps to stop the abuse did not.

What lessons can we learn from this horrible experience?

I have participated in many discussions about the competence and professional behavior of certain medical students, residents, and physicians. Typically, colleagues express concern about the welfare and career of the student or doctor, which is reasonable and compassionate. But I always focus on the “end user”: future patients, whom we can’t know today. Our primary obligation, I contend, is to them, the most vulnerable, who will enter naïve into a doctor-patient relationship. Will this student, resident, or doctor be good and safe for these people, whose lives depend on our actions? I wonder if university administrators worried so much about the well-being and future of alleged perpetrators that they couldn’t “see” the kids who were injured and others who would be at risk? Did they fear potential damage to the reputation of our august institution so much that they missed the question of right and wrong, ultimately damaging this university far more?

In the denouement of the movie “A Few Good Men,” one of two marine defendants in a court martial explains to his subordinate that they were supposed to fight for those who could not fight for themselves. As healers and as administrators, we have a similar and sacred charge. I pray people will draw lessons from Penn State’s current travails. I hope that the next person to witness or hear of a child being brutalized will do the right thing—without hesitation or thought of politics. I hope the next doctor worried about the integrity or competence of a colleague will do the same.

Alan J. Gelenberg, M.D.
Shively/Tan Professor and Chair of Psychiatry
Penn State

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