In the wake of the U.S. Olympics Gymnastics scandal involving the sexual abuse of hundreds of young athletes by team doctor Larry Nassar, some people are asking where the parents were when the abuse was occurring.
In a recent column for NBC News, Bethany Mandel argues that to do so is to practice a kind of self-righteous public shaming of those involved: “It’s a common response when tragedy strikes a child: Where were the parents? How could they let this happen? After a child is hurt or killed, online mommy-shamers inevitably swoop in, incapable of offering enough empathy to appreciate that sometimes bad things happen even to children with the best parents. In the wake of the Larry Nassar case, as scolds tend to do, they’ve swooped in again.”
Mandel compares the “scolding” of the young gymnasts’ parents to that experienced by other parents in recent years whose children fell into a gorilla enclosure at the zoo or were grabbed by an alligator at Disney World. She sees the focus on the parents as a distraction that ultimately accomplishes nothing:
“Unfortunately, tragedy is rarely so orderly, so predictable, or so preventable,” she writes. “Sometimes, bad things happen to good people — and they can happen at any moment, which is one of the most terrifying aspects of being alive. To cope with that terror, many of us like to pretend it can’t and doesn’t happen.”
In the case of the gymnastics scandal and others involving sexual abuse, she argues that the result of asking what might have been done to prevent the abuse is to shift blame from the perpetrator to the parents: “The blame always ultimately lies with the abuser. Internalizing the idea that we can protect our children from all manner of harm or else we’re to blame for whatever happens of them is dangerous for parents and, ultimately, for our children.”
The argument, while well-intentioned in expressing deep sympathy and compassion for both the victims and their parents, misses an opportunity to try to figure out what happened here and to make sure it doesn’t happen again. There is a huge difference between a child falling into a gorilla cage or getting grabbed by an alligator and the systematic, institutionally-aided abuse of hundreds of children over a period of 20-plus years. The two former instances required only a second’s inattention to an unknown risk; the latter required multiple missed red flags, large scale deception, and on the part of at least some, willful ignoring of the potential for abuse. There is no comparison.
This is not to say that I or anyone yet knows everything that went wrong in the case of the Olympic gymnasts. But clearly a lot of things did. Tracy Connor and Sarah Fitzpatrick, writing for NBC News, have identified “8 Times Larry Nassar Could Have Been Stopped” but wasn’t. Those missed opportunities range from coaches and trainers telling gymnasts that they misunderstood Nassar’s treatment of them or discouraging them from lodging a complaint because of the difficulty involved, to parents and others simply not believing the gymnasts’ claims. Is it not worth asking, in all of these instances, what could have been done differently — what should have been done differently to protect children who were in no position to protect themselves?
Some of these mothers reacted with disbelief when their daughters spoke up. One couple made their daughter apologize to Nassar when she told them what happened. Another mom asked Nassar why he wasn’t wearing gloves, but told herself to keep quiet when he responded with an answer that made her feel stupid. One girl begged her mom not to tell anyone, because she feared it would mess up her gymnastics career — and she acquiesced.
In one sense the cries of “blame-shifting” are in effect a sort of victim-shifting — removing the focus from the victims and what they suffered to the feelings of those who were best-positioned to protect them but who, by their own admission, failed to do so. I have argued elsewhere that it is impossible to provide a world in which our children are safe 100 percent of the time. Evil is real and always closer than we suspect. Bad things happen, even when as parents and caregivers we are trying our best to make sure they don’t. But even as we try, we sometimes make mistakes.
I know that as a parent I have made many, and I wish I could go back and do some things differently. There were times my mistakes led to my child’s being exposed to something I wish he hadn’t, or having an experience I would have preferred to shield him from. I have to live with that knowledge, albeit on a less devastating scale than the parents of children who have been sexually victimized, physically harmed or killed. When I think of the parents of such children, my heart breaks for them. I can’t begin to imagine their pain. There but for the grace of God go I.
Yet if we want to protect children, we have to ask what could have been done differently. Asking “where were the parents?” is not about blaming or shaming. It’s about trying to keep it from happening to someone else. Don’t we all want that? Parents have the responsibility to protect their children. When something goes wrong, I think it’s okay to ask, “Could something more have been done?” If it prevents just one child from the same fate, isn’t it worth it?