Sex abuse goes to school

In a story titled "Sexual Conduct Plagues U.S. Schools," reporters Martha Irvine and Robert Tanner found more than 2,500 educators in public schools in only five years whose teaching credentials were revoked, denied or otherwise sanctioned because of sexual misconduct. The majority of the cases involved minors who were students.

Experts estimated that only one in 10 students actually report sexual abuse of any kind, so the numbers may indeed be far higher, and this is only for the years 2001-2005.

"Students are groped. They're raped. They're pursued, seduced and think they are in love," the reporters wrote. "Most of the abuse never gets reported."

One government report estimates that as many as 4.5 million students (out of 50 million) are subjected to some form of sexual misconduct -- including verbal harassment -- by a school employee during their 12 years of education.

The AP report compared the rates of abuse in public schools with the scandal that has paralyzed our Church and cost parishioners, dioceses and insurers more than $1.5 billion so far: The in-depth review by U.S. bishops "found that about 4,400 of 110,000 priests were accused of molesting minors from 1950 through 2002."

Because of the number of public schools, their lack of uniform reporting standards and the lack of political will, there is probably no organization that has the resources to investigate public education for the past 50 years, but the potential size of this scandal is breathtaking.

And so is the stonewalling, the secret deals, the lack of accountability, the blaming of the victims and the general ease with which abusers are able to move from district to district, find new jobs and continue their abuse, all of which the Associated Press documented.

In one case in Iowa, a teacher named Gary C. Lindsey was first identified as an abuser in 1964. He was never publicly identified as such, however, and continued teaching, and abusing, in various schools.

It finally took the actions of one student -- 8 years old when she was first abused -- and her parents to stop him, suing the school district for failing to protect her and winning a $20,000 settlement.

However, in another case where a seventh-grade girl was seduced by her teacher, "a federal judge dismissed her civil suit against the school, saying administrators had no obligation to protect her from a predatory teacher since officials were unaware of the abuse, despite what the court called widespread 'unsubstantiated rumors' in the school."

Why is the AP story important? It is not because it in any way mitigates the scandals associated with clergy abuse. Many young people have had their lives ruined by trusted priests and religious, and many bad decisions were made by bishops and religious superiors regarding these abusers.

But in the overheated media climate of the past several years, the Catholic Church has been singled out and made a pariah (the removal of the statutes of limitations, for example, so that the Church can be sued for incidents that occurred decades ago), while other institutions, most notably public education, have avoided any sort of accountability.

Ask yourself this: If Gary Lindsey had been a priest, do you think that his victim would have won only $20,000 in a lawsuit? But public schools are protected from punitive lawsuits by state laws, and there is no financial disincentive for school districts to hide their dirty laundry from each other and from the public.

In our sexually obsessed society, sexual abuse is pandemic. Children are abused daily by teachers, day-care workers, doctors, counselors, stepparents, siblings, peers and neighbors.

The Associated Press story has taken a Pulitzer-sized step toward making our society see the real extent of the sickness within its midst.

Greg Erlandson is the president and publisher of Our Sunday Visitor.