Is Abetting as Bad as the Crime?

Relative GuiltI found this image on Facebook. For those who can’t see it, it reads, “You are just as guilty as the abuser if you know about animal abuse and do nothing.” The poster, Valerie VanOrden, added, “Ditto with child abuse or over-correction.” I assume “over-correction” is a reference to corporal punishment of children. I understand this sentiment, so it is not my intent to attack Ms VanOrden. But I think this is wrong and even dangerous.

It is easy to be so outraged at a crime that one latches onto “enablers.” When it comes to child abuse, the act seems so heinous that it is easy to define the abusers as not even human. Thus the humans who we can empathize with are those we focus our rage on. After all, each of us has the experience of being in a situation where someone misbehaved and we did nothing. So in a weird kind of way, attacking such people in different circumstances can feel like making amends for our own acts of cowardice. But that doesn’t actually make the current or past situations any better.

Doing nothing when a child or an animal is abused is wrong. But such signs (and arguments) don’t say that. They explicitly equate the acts. And that is preposterous. For one thing, what exactly does it mean to “do nothing”? If you see a man kick his dog, is giving him a dirty look enough? What about saying something like, “Don’t kick that dog!”? Or perhaps kicking the man? None of these things will necessarily end the man’s behavior? Even getting the man arrested, convicted, and jailed may not stop his behavior. So what level of engagement is required?

It is very possible that the best thing you could do in that case would be to tell everyone you know about the awful man who kicked his dog. It isn’t legal penalties that are primarily responsible for the much better treatment of animals today versus 200 years ago. In Henry Bergh’s time, horses were commonly flogged to death on the streets of New York. Now such behavior would be unthinkable. So I’m not at all certain that expecting every person to turn into informants for the police is necessary or even especially helpful.

There is also the problem that people who abuse animals and children are probably dangerous people. So encouraging little old ladies to confront such sociopaths is not necessarily a great idea. And confrontations can make things worse. I say this as a person with a long history thrusting myself into such situations. They usually do quiet the situation in the short-term, but at the expense of causing the anger to be focused on me. That’s fine, but I’m not sure if it helps the situation in the long-term.

What’s more, the people who are most likely to know about abuse are people who are being abused themselves. For example, if there is an abusing father who is beating the children, he is probably also beating the wife. I know of a couple of cases of truly heroic women who got their children out of these situations — cases in which the women were willing to accept being abused themselves but not when the situation degenerated to include the children. But these women are heroes, and the last thing we should do is lay shame upon all similarly placed women who are not capable of the heroism the situation demands.

When it comes to things like Catholic bishops covering up for priests who sexually abused children, the situation is different. Moving priests to new areas where they could continue to abuse children could very well be as bad as or even worse than what the priests were doing. In these cases, the bishop was acting as a kind of pimp for unwanted sexual encounters. But I’m certain that the bishops didn’t see themselves as pimps. They probably thought that the priests were just having difficulties that the bishops could finesse. There was just one boy that the priest couldn’t resist. Or there was too much pressure on the priest. Or thousands of other justifications that the bishop used to allow the priest to continue preying on the young. This is a special kind of villainy, but mostly one where the bishops managed to delude themselves into thinking they were doing something other than what they were actually doing. That doesn’t reduce their culpability, of course.

The bishop situation is different because they were actively facilitating child rape committed by priests. The situations that people face in their everyday lives are quite different. If you think that a neighborhood child is being brutalized by his parents, you should do something about it. There is a moral imperative. But not doing so is not equal to brutalizing the child yourself. And claiming that it is minimizes the initial act of brutality.

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