Syracuse fired Bernie Fine, its longtime associate head basketball coach, Sunday night amid allegations that he had molested several ball boys while they were involved with the program. The university’s action came after a third individual stepped forward to accuse Fine last weekend and a taped phone conversation between Fine’s wife and another accuser was released in which Fine’s wife acknowledged having concerns about her husband having sexual contact with boys.
In addition to prompting Fine’s firing, these developments caused the university’s head basketball coach Jim Boeheim to apologize for comments he made earlier this month in which he said one of Fine’s accusers was “lying” and that “the kid behind this is trying to get money.” Although a police investigation of Fine’s conduct is still ongoing and he should be presumed innocent until proven guilty in accordance with due process, the response that the allegations elicited from Boeheim is a sad follow-up to the recent revelation that Joe Paterno failed to notify law enforcement authorities about allegations of child molestation lodged against Jerry Sandusky, one of his assistant football coaches while at Penn State. These two situations are evidence that major institutions such as colleges and universities need to offer better guidance to employees about how they should handle allegations of sexual misconduct that are filed against their colleagues so as to ensure that accusations are properly investigated and victims are not intimidated into silence.
Chief among the recommendations should be that employees refrain from publicly commenting about allegations of which they lack direct knowledge out of deference for the potential victims of abuse. One of the greatest hurdles to successfully bringing child molesters to justice is that victims often are unwilling to come forward because of the backlash they fear from friends, family and other members of their communities. This concern is amplified in cases such as the one at Syracuse, where the alleged perpetrator is a person of prominence who has a strong public reputation and many resources available to defend himself. Institutions should make clear to their employees that while they are entitled to defend themselves as Boeheim did when accused of knowing about Fine’s alleged misconduct, it is wholly unacceptable to impugn the motives of those who accuse their colleagues.
Moreover, institutions should make clear that employees have a duty to report any credible complaints of sexual misconduct to law enforcement officials in addition to their superiors within the organization. Even when the proper internal procedures are in place for handling such accusations, those charged with carrying them out may be influenced by personal desires to protect their friends or institutions. These shortcomings were on vivid display at Penn State, where members of the athletic department are alleged to have covered up the accusations against Sandusky in the interests of sparing the university a potential scandal.
They are evident to a lesser extent at Syracuse, where Boeheim demonstrated a significant bias in favor of his assistant coach by immediately calling into question the character of those accusing him of abuse. Although no evidence yet exists to suggest that Boeheim had knowledge of the allegations beyond what the university and police investigated in 2005, his attitude suggests that had complaints been brought to his attention alone he might have viewed them with skepticism and been hesitant to take action.
Fortunately, U. Virginia has already indicated a willingness to review its own approach to addressing allegations of misconduct in light of these scandals. “I want U.Va. to learn from negative events that happen at any university … and to model for our students how we can continue to learn and improve,” President Teresa A. Sullivan told the Board of Visitors shortly after Paterno’s firing at Penn State. Although it is far too late to rectify the injustices done to past victims of child sex abuse, Sullivan should follow through on her pledge to engage in institutional self-reflection so that members of the University community will know how to react should such distressing incidents occur here in the future.