Quaker Colleges as Rape-Free Zones?

Swarthmore Sex Scandals Reveal the Pernicious Effects of the Myth of Quaker Egalitarianism


The recent sex scandals at Pennsylvania’s Swarthmore College involve allegations of administrative coverups and failure to take effective steps to enforce the criminal law or comply with the Clery Act. The scandals demonstrate that the espousal of Quaker values and traditions does not confer immunity on the students, faculty, and administrators to the influence of dominant “rape culture” in all its pernicious guises. To believe otherwise is a dangerous and destructive myth. It must be abandoned.

Quakers and those who espouse Quaker values are as likely as non-Quakers to deny that a member of their family, college or school community, or meeting is, or may be, a rapist, sexual assailant, or child molester. Victims of sexual abuse or assault by members of Quaker meetings or by employees or students in colleges and schools that were founded by the Religious Society of Friends should be encouraged to turn to outside authorities and agencies for assistance, not to meetings or school administrators. The Swarthmore experience reminds us that it is naïve to assume that Quakers—even those who may be experienced and well-intended educators—are sufficiently wise and well-informed to respond appropriately to a victim’s disclosures.

Victims’ disclosures easily become gossip, information shared in ignorance without understanding or respect for the significance of the disclosure or the need for confidentiality. This can result in profound damage and unnecessary and avoidable secondary trauma to the victim, the perpetrator, and third parties, while the root issues of sexual violence are not effectively addressed. Family members, peers, faculty, and administrators may try to silence victims with threats of recrimination, bullying, and even slander, alleging that the victims were the sexual aggressor or otherwise at fault. They may do so out of fear of damage to their personal and professional reputations due to their personal ties to the victim, the perpetrator, or the school, or they may simply want to protect the school’s reputation. Denial, defensive self-righteousness, or simple pride and self-interest may overwhelm good judgment; lawyers may be consulted and experts retained in an attempt to intimidate victims or influence police and prosecutors not to proceed against perpetrators. In some cases key witnesses and institutional representatives may even say and do whatever they can to obstruct justice in the naïve but self-serving belief that avoidance of involvement with the criminal justice system is necessary to ensure a Quakerly, peaceful, and socially constructive resolution of the matter. The impulse to engage in cover-up measures may dominate, and those measures may not necessarily even be seen for what they are.

In most sexual assault cases, non-enforcement of the law does not have pro-social and constructive effects. Empirical research shows that the typical perpetrator has abused more than one person, sometimes more than once. Sexual abuse is commonly an opportunistic offence; in roughly 80 percent of known cases, the victims are persons who are well-known to the offender and perceived to be both easy targets and unlikely to report the offense. At the same time, history shows that law enforcement personnel are sometimes content to allow insular communities, such as churches and church-related educational institutions, to continue to regulate themselves despite allegations of sexual abuse, even though the practical effect is to leave patterns of abuse of power and control unchallenged. As long as the abuse is limited to a specific group or institution, it poses no apparent threat to the general public; this makes it easier for public authorities to conclude: “Let’s leave them alone and let them deal with it . . . if they choose to and can.” That saves significant public funds that would otherwise be spent on salaries and court expenses, not to mention the costs of actually taking affirmative steps to rehabilitate offenders. But the effect of failure to enforce the law is abandonment of victims and the perpetuation of patterns of abuse. Conflicts between victims and perpetrators that play out over decades can result. When abusive behavior is modeled for other members of a family, meeting, school, or college, and remains protected from criminal sanctions, it is reinforced within the subculture. Victims are thus targeted for re-victimization, and the abuse may, like any cultural practice, become intergenerational. To avoid further abuse, victims must leave. Many do. Others submit.

Quaker communities, colleges, and independent schools that espouse Quaker values and traditions are not the only groups to have faced these issues. Many religious and faith-based communities and schools have struggled and continue to struggle to develop approaches to sexual abuse of and by their members that move beyond denial and are consistent with gender equality and principles of sexual integrity and sexual autonomy. Recent discussion in the news media, in Friends Journal, and in online commentary indicates that some Quakers and non-Quakers are finally prepared to openly acknowledge that sexual abuse, child molestation, and rape of Quakers by Quakers does occur, and that it occurs in Quaker colleges and schools, as well as in those many meetings and families that have strong multi-generational traditions of involvement in Quaker education.

Acknowledgement of that reality is a significant first step; more is needed. Sexual abuse is committed in secrecy. Perpetrators commonly rely on their reputations and the reputations of their associates and families to deflect suspicion and maintain their social position. Sexual abuse and sexual assault are criminal offenses, not accidents or minor peccadillos appropriately adjudicated by college or school administrators or hearing panels. Urgent priority should therefore be given to these actions: (1) full implementation of effective multi-jurisdictional police screening of all persons placed in positions of authority and trust in Quaker colleges, boarding schools, and day schools; and (2) the establishment of complaint mechanisms that ensure immediate and confidential access by victims to outside authorities and agencies that are fully independent of Quaker educational institutions and the network of interpersonal relationships that often surround and sustain these institutions and their governing boards and trustees. To fail to take such steps, knowing what is known about these issues as of 2014, arguably renders educational institutions and their trustees complicit in any and all sexual abuse facilitated by perpetrators’ membership or role in the educational community. Such failures explain how it is that, even as you read this, carefully nurtured and long-protected perpetrators are likely grooming children, adolescents, young adults, or co-workers for sexual abuse in colleges and schools that purport to operate in accord with Quaker principles. There is no excuse for this state of affairs.

Contrary to what appear to be widespread and self-serving beliefs, neither the phenomenon of sexual assault nor the rule of law stop at the leafy ivy walls and gates of even the most prestigious colleges and boarding and day schools. Quakers have long assumed a responsibility to protect vulnerable persons from abuse. It is time to recognize that is an ethical and legal responsibility that extends to the protection of vulnerable persons from abuse by Quakers and Quaker institutions. It is ironic, given the historical tension many Quakers have experienced since the 1600s between the requirements of the law and the requirements of conscience, that in 2014 the rule of law may embody the principles of social responsibility and gender equality in relation to sexual violence more successfully than the current policies and practices of Quaker educational institutions can and often do.

Lucinda Vandervort

Lucinda Vandervort is a legal philosopher and professor at University of Saskatchewan specializing in criminal law and jurisprudence. She is a member of North Columbus (Ohio) Meeting. Her academic publications on sexual consent, institutional design, access to justice, and social justice are at fdsj.nl/vandervort.

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