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No Harm, No Foul? Part 1

Jan 23, 2008 — Categories: ,

Why is professional misconduct wrong? Because someone gets hurt. When any of us in a ministerial or teaching role betrays trust, exploits or abuses, we cause harm to another person.

Why is professional misconduct wrong? Because someone gets hurt. When any of us in a ministerial or teaching role betrays trust, exploits or abuses, we cause harm to another person.

So, in my mind, harm done to another person by a minister or teacher should motivate an institution like the university or the church to 1) declare the misconduct wrong/sinful/unacceptable, 2) support the one who’s harmed, and 3) hold the professional accountable. Harm = foul leads to action, right?

But I am regularly disappointed: too often the university or church doesn’t act in ways to make justice. The fact of harm done does not seem to be sufficient motivation for action.

Author Naomi Wolf was sexually harassed as an undergraduate at Yale in the 1980s. In 2004 she wrote about her subsequent years of struggle to determine what has Yale done to hold its faculty accountable. How many other female students have been harassed but not supported by the institution?

She probably began with the same ethical assumption I did. If there is harm of a student, there is a foul, and the institution should confront the offender and try to prevent further harm to ALL students.

But alas, Ms. Wolf too has been oft disappointed and suggests a different approach: “If [instead] we see this as a systemic-corruption issue, then when people bring allegations, the focus will be on whether the institution has been damaged in its larger mission. The Catholic Church is a good example: The public understood that church leaders’ maintaining silence about systemic sexual transgressions corrupted the mission of an organization that had a great responsibility to society as a whole. Even the military is starting to understand that systemic sexual harassment of cadets corrupts its social mission.”

So if the salient issue for the institution is how is the institution and its mission is damaged when one of its leaders/employees/representatives engages in unprofessional conduct such as sexual harassment, perhaps we should take a different course. Perhaps the institution (church, university, corporation, etc.) can be motivated to act when it recognizes its self-interest and the potential negative consequences it may face (legal, financial, public image, etc.) which can undercut its mission and indeed, its survival.

If in fact institutional self-interest is a greater concern than possible harm done to someone who trusted the institution, then perhaps those of us seeking change have been barking up the wrong tree. All this time I thought the church and the university cared about the wellbeing of the people whom they serve.

To be continued . . .

Rev. Dr. Marie M. Fortune
FaithTrust Institute
www.faithtrustinstitute.org

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