The Allentown, Pa., school board may be forgiven for feeling a lot like Catholic bishops these days.
The board is being pilloried for allegedly covering up a series of sexual attacks by a 12-year-old student on first-graders.
Now the target of a $15 million federal lawsuit by angry parents, the school district has taken the unedifying position that even if the attacks had occurred, it cannot be held responsible under the Constitution for this failure to protect its children.
Their lawyer, on good authority, is citing court rulings, The Associated Press reported, "that say school systems are generally immune from paying damages unless it can be shown that they actually took 'affirmative' steps that put youngsters in danger, and that the action taken 'shocks the conscience.'"
The parents reply that that is exactly the situation. Even after school officials were aware of three previous assaults, parents say that the predator child was put on unsupervised hallway detention next to the first-graders' bathroom -- where the fourth assault occurred.
The attacks were made public only when an angry parent -- told by his child that someone had tried to "pee in his butt" -- called police and pressed charges when school administrators would not. The school board has responded to the lawsuit by asking that it be dismissed, and by hiring a public-relations firm to manage the crisis.
This month it was also revealed that a San Antonio, Texas, school district has been rocked by allegations of teachers having same-sex encounters with students, abuse by a janitor and a number of other alleged sexual assaults.
As many of us learned thanks to the Colorado bishops, school districts are generally immune from punitive damages, even though experts claim that the number of sexual-abuse cases in public schools dwarfs anything that has been alleged against the Catholic Church.
The trouble, of course, is that no punitive damages means no lawyerly interest. Abuse cases are becoming a cash cow for some members of the legal profession. The Portland Oregonian recently revealed that about one half of a proposed $48 million settlement between the Spokane diocese and abuse victims will go to lawyers. Seven million dollars will go to the lawyers involved in the bankruptcy proceedings by the diocese. Of the remaining $41 million, only $21 million will go to the victims.
The Spokane cases go back as far as the 1940s. One can only imagine what a similar investigation of any public school district in the country would reveal.
Meanwhile, Davenport, Iowa, is now the fourth Catholic diocese to declare bankruptcy as a result of the cost of settling a series of lawsuits concerning clergy sex abuse. This will not be a fate that the Allentown school board will have to face. Funded by taxes and shielded by the courts, it stands to lose only its good name and perhaps an employee or two given as a sacrificial offering to parental outrage.
Unnoticed by any of the news reports of the Allentown case is that juvenile-on-juvenile sexual abuse is on the rise, the latest disturbing trend in an overwhelming epidemic of sexual abuse in this country. Pornography is one suggested cause for this epidemic, and an estimated 42 percent of all youngsters between the ages of 10 and 17 have seen pornographic images online. In the hypersexualized and increasingly perverse society we now inhabit, sexual abuse is skyrocketing, even as sexual behavior of all kinds -- even in middle school -- is becoming normative.
Unfortunately, our children have been abandoned by the politicians, the courts, popular media and the Internet. Apparently, until we make it much easier for lawyers to get rich off this catastrophe, no serious steps will be taken to protect our children from what is becoming a culture of abuse. We will only cluck about it once it has happened.
Greg Erlandson is president and publisher of OSV.