I awoke this morning to front-page news about two criminal convictions—both concerning sexual abuse of children by trusted authorities, both in Pennsylvania, my home state, where I now live again. One involved a church leader in Philadelphia, the other a highly regarded assistant football coach at Penn State, where I am on faculty. The stories are jarring and disturbing and have made headlines around the world. The stories also carry lessons and reminders.
When I served in the U.S. Army, I learned (as all officers were taught) that nothing transcends the mission and the people. Society sets up many authorities, social structures, codes, and hierarchies: the military, law enforcement. civil service, the courts, religion, universities, medicine, and many others. People higher up in such hierarchies often enjoy privilege, elevated status, wealth, and recognition. Society imbues these people with trust and many perquisites and, in return, expects a code of conduct—such as dedication to one’s mission and people. Still, it is common for people and organizations to lose sight of these sacred trusts and focus instead on self gratification and taking care of one’s own: for example, police sometimes protect other officers before the public; doctors often protect our colleagues and trainees above our responsibility to their future patients.
It is reassuring that, after generations of neglect, society is now investigating and punishing the abuse of children. But physicians, educators, the clergy, and many others who benefit from elevated status in our community carry a range of obligations and expectations. We need to renew our vows every day in our own worlds—reminding ourselves of those who are vulnerable and depend on us. It comes back to our mission and our people.
-Alan J. Gelenberg, M.D.
Editor, Biological Therapies in Psychiatry
Shively/Tan Professor and Chair, Psychiatry, Penn State University
Editor-in-Chief, Journal of Clinical Psychiatry