Highlights from SCCE’s 2023 Compliance & Ethics Institute – An Organization’s Path Through Sexual Abuse or Assault “The Best Way Out is Through: Compliance Challenges and Fidelity to Mission When Responding to Sexual Abuse Crises”

November 29, 2023

This is the fourth blog article in our series detailing the highlights of SCCE’s 2023 Compliance & Ethics Institute. In yet another superb advanced session presented by Emily Stern, Assistant Attorney General of New York, and Gina Maisto Smith of Cozen O’Connor Institutional Response Group, we learned about the importance of promoting trust, safety, and fidelity to mission in the institutional response to incidents of sexual abuse.  The panel began by sharing the famous quote of Jerry Sandusky’s prosecutor, “You’ve lost when you have confused organizational reputation with institutional integrity.”

The panelists stressed that safety must be a core value of any organization that serves others, particularly those that serve vulnerable populations. Commitment to that value is essential to maintaining trust with survivors of sexual offenses. The panelists encouraged compliance professionals to be mindful that they are not in a victim assistance role but should secure resources for such a professional to be available to a survivor in appropriate cases.

From the compliance professional’s perspective, there may be compliance requirements in the wake of sexual abuse such as mandatory reporting requirements, statutory and common law duties, and further obligations in certain regulated sectors like education, healthcare, and corrections. The panel recommended avoiding the commonly-used phrase “he said-she said,” as it hints that evidence may not be sufficient to prove reported events even though credibility can be and is often proven beyond a reasonable doubt even with little forensic or physical evidence. Moreover, survivors are often groomed prior to abuse, as are the communities of the offender. Offenders often build their own credibility and hence, the community’s trust in them, to create access to their targets without suspicion, to shape perception of the conduct, and to discourage reporting.

The session invited compliance professionals to “embrace the tension” created by a sexual abuse crisis by confronting vulnerabilities head on and avoiding “rug sweeping” behaviors and “ostriching.” Instead, they stressed developing systems for coordinated communication and reliable capabilities in documenting information, actions, and institutional responses in real time.

The panel set forth the importance of readily accessible reporting avenues (such as online portals and hotlines) and skilled staff to receive reports and handle survivors with a trauma-informed approach. They also presented a few critical and time sensitive response considerations. First, the triage process is essential. An organization should immediately convene a critical response team to address known information, make safety determinations, assess immediate reporting obligations, obtain subject matter expertise and support, and establish expectations for the unfolding process – both fact gathering and chronology of institutional response. Next, the organization must respond to complaints or reports in a timely manner, keep thorough contemporaneous records and documentation, and allow experts, law enforcement, child protection professionals, and other subject matter experts to guide the process.

While compliance with the legal framework is one key principle in mastering institutional response, the panel also illuminated that psychology and the dynamics of trauma and violence play an equal part along with the institutional constellation of culture, values, climate, history, resources, policies, procedures, and personnel. After a sexual abuse offense, a compliance professional can quickly find himself, herself, or themselves, in a complex web of all of the above, as well as the institution’s internal legal follow up, interactions with law enforcement, civil or other regulatory actions or inquiries, media inquiries, and criminal defense requests or subpoenas for documents and witnesses. This complexity arrives with velocity, and as always, it is prudent to plan well in advance of a sexual abuse crisis in order to mitigate the risks to the organization and avoid further victimization of survivors.

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