Tuesday, February 4, 2003

Evil wins when we don't talk



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When good people keep quiet, evil triumphs. And innocent people get hurt.Those are the shameful trademarks of a culture of silence.

This culture wreaks havoc in schools (witness Amelia High School's string of teacher-student sex scandals), in churches (Roman Catholic priests sexually abuse boys) and in police departments (good Cincinnati cops fail to report bad cops' misdeeds).

After what happened Saturday to the space shuttle Columbia in the skies over Texas, I'm betting this culture will also be found, once more, at NASA.

Based on that agency's history of covering up problems linked to disasters, I have a sneaking suspicion that a buried report may surface. Its findings might detail the catastrophe that could result when hardened foam insulation falls from an external fuel tank and strikes a space shuttle.

Much of this trouble and misery stems from silence. Someone did not speak out. Someone in charge did not take heed and take action.

Someone did not do the right thing. Someone stayed silent.

Causing the silence

What fosters a culture of silence? How can people be encouraged to be forthcoming?

For the answers to these questions, I turned to Daniel Breyer. He's an assistant Clermont County prosecutor.

If the case of the Amelia teacher indicted last week on four counts of sexual battery with a then-17-year-old girl during the 1998-99 school year goes to trial, Breyer will lead the county's team in the courtroom.

This won't be the first time he has prosecuted a teacher for allegedly having sex with a student. Nor will it be the first time he has encountered a school culture that had gotten wind of illegal activity and let it fall on deaf ears.

Breyer has seen the harm that can come from a culture of silence. He knows its source. "It's fear," he said.

Fear of the boss doing nothing and then turning on the whistle-blower. Fear of the accused taking revenge. Fear of lawsuits. Fear of being ostracized by peers.

"People stop talking," he noted, "when they are afraid of the repercussions."

So, the crime, the problem, go unreported. "Other people," Breyer said, "get victimized." Excuses get made.

Reporters covering the Amelia scandals have already heard educated people rationalize the latest incident by saying: At least the girl was 17. At least the teacher was a man.

As if any of that excused the illegal behavior or made the problem go away.

William F. Readdy, the former astronaut in charge of NASA's manned space flights, has already said: "We will find the cause, we will fix it, and then we will move on."

That's cold comfort for the families whose loved ones were torn apart 40 miles above the earth as the Columbia disintegrated at the speed of 12,500 miles per hour. NASA may find the cause of the disaster. But it's never going to be able to "fix it" for the people on board.

Breaking the silence

Courage and consistency can stop the culture of silence.

"People want to talk," Daniel Breyer told me. "We are a gregarious society."

They won't clam up if they believe the leaders of a organization have the courage to see that the rules are fairly and consistently enforced and the laws of the land are obeyed.

"Whoever is in the leadership position," he said, "has the ability to set the standards."

Those standards must encourage everyone to speak out without fear. Students, teachers, employees must feel free to identify wrongdoers, to point out problems.

Without this freedom, everyone will suffer. From the silence.

Call Cliff Radel at 768-8379; or e-mail: cradel@enquirer.com.




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