SVU Episode 14-8: Lessons Learned

Tonight’s Law & Order: SVU explored how child sex abuse can fester within powerful institutions.  “Lessons Learned” was an intense episode combining some of the most disturbing elements from the real-life cases of Jerry Sandusky, the Boy Scouts, and a posh prep school in Minnesota.

Recap: Most nights, you get the impression that SVU’s detectives work just one case per week. The rest of New York’s crimes are apparently handled in tonight’s chaotic opening scene. The station is crowded with sobbing victims, screaming prostitutes, and couples fighting Jerry-Springer style. An old man walks in clutching a letter he wants to discuss – and he’s so overwhelmed, he leaves before Nick gets to him.

The next morning, the man’s corpse is found in his apartment, hanging from a rope. He was a teacher at an exclusive prep school called Manor Hill. Nick feels bad until he finds the letter on a desk – from a boy who was the teacher’s student, accusing him of sexual abuse years ago.

The teacher’s death was a suicide. While figuring that out, the detectives discover dozens more ex-students who say they were also abused – by the dead man and three more teachers.

There appears to have been a culture of sexual abuse and willful blindness at Manor Hill. The abuse was so long ago, those teachers are gone – dead, demented, or in Thailand. The detectives set their sights on the school.

But evidence from long ago is hard to find. One student says a teacher (now dead) gave him gonorrhea, which the boy’s father (now dead) reported to the school. The school denies it, but the ADA, Barba, gets the dead teacher’s medical records – which show the teacher had the STD.

Seconds later, a Manor Hill lawyer marches into Barba’s office and says he’ll never be able to use the records. NY law says a dead person’s medical confidentiality can’t be waived if it would harm his reputation. Soon, the lawyers are all in court, with the ADA taking the odd position that having sex with underage boys is perfectly respectable, and the school’s lawyer arguing how horrible it really is. The judge concludes that gonorrhea is not something anyone wants in their obituary, regardless. The evidence is suppressed.

Barba tries to make his case in the Grand Jury with mere testimony. After questioning some school officials, the ADA comes out and tells a victim exactly how things were going inside the Grand Jury room. The victim promptly leaves the courthouse. Ice-T finds him in a motel, naked, OD’ing on cocaine, reaching for a hooker. “His credibility is shot,” mutters Barba.

In a final push to make their case, Olivia goes to the home of Manor Hill’s president. He continues to haughtily deny the abuse – until his thirtysomething son, who still lives at home “writing songs” sobbingly infers that he, too, was a victim. The president is shocked and horrified.

The school president convenes a public meeting in which he apologizes to all the victims who were hurt in the prior years of abuse and silence. “Today starts a healing process,” he says. Olivia blinks back her tears.

Verdict: B+

What they got right:

This case was ripped from the headlines of Faribault, Minnesota, where authorities are investigating allegations that four teachers at a posh prep school molested students. The investigation began when one of the teachers at Shattuck-St. Mary’s killed himself after the school questioned him about sex-abuse allegations. The town’s interim police chief was quoted as saying: “They were apparently doing their own investigation, and they did not notify the professionals . . . I don’t think they would have reported that unless they had a dead body.”

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In the last few years, we’ve seen too many powerful institutions whose most respected leaders committed the most horrifying crimes, which the institutions ignored, failed to report, or covered up. Jerry Sandusky used his position as a football coach at Penn State to lure and rape young male victims, while university officials hushed it up.

The Boy Scouts were recently ordered to release their “perversion files,” reports of thousands of allegations of Scout leaders sexually abusing boys under their care. According to the Huffington Post,

“Boy Scouts of America failed to report hundreds of alleged child molesters to police and often hid the allegations from parents and the public. Scouting officials frequently urged admitted offenders to quietly resign and helped many cover their tracks, allowing the molesters to cite bogus reasons for their departure.”

Don’t even get me started on the Catholic Church’s shameful complicity in the sexual assault of countless children by priests.

Something has to change. Institutions must know that they cannot shuffle around predators and sweep sex-assault allegations under the rug. Many states have laws mandating that people in certain professions (e.g., social workers, teachers, doctors) are legally obligated to report such allegations. In light of these scandals, there’s been a strong push to expand these rules. Kudos to SVU for shining a light on a crime that flourishes in the dark.

What they got wrong:

There is a New York law saying a dead patient’s medical records can’t be released if they would harm his reputation. While tonight’s opposite-world courtroom showdown was interesting, it wouldn’t have happened in real life. Everything that takes place in a Grand Jury investigation is strictly secret, known only to the prosecutor, police, and jurors. The Manor Hill lawyer would not know the ADA had the evidence. Even if she did, her client had no standing to object to its use. It’s not the school that had gonorrhea or whose wife would be furious if she found out.

Similarly, the DA couldn’t come out of the Grand Jury and tell the victim how the school officials testified. A prosecutor may not tell one witness what another said in the Grand Jury. Barba could have saved his witness a night in the ER if he’d followed the rules of secrecy.

I’ve had plenty of witnesses get cold feet before their Grand Jury date. I’ve asked many police officers to go search for them. None was ever discovered naked with a hooker. (But if anyone had to make that discovery, I’d want it to be Ice-T.)

Finally, I disagreed with the ADA’s evaluation that the naked guy’s credibility was shot. Plenty of credible witnesses admit to using drugs or prostitutes – or are prostitutes themselves. Crimes don’t just happen to nuns and orphans. Depending on the surrounding evidence, most jurors can believe a witness’s story, even if he hasn’t lived a perfect life.

What do you think, SVU fans? Leave your comments!

Comments

  1. I’d say snorting coke can easily be interpreted as a consequence of the abuse, and thus make the witness more credible rather than less.

    On the other hand, is drug addiction a logical consequence? Did you see a lot of victims (especially those who didn’t receive treatment) get into drugs or alcohol, Allison? Although I can imagine it, it also seems a bit like a stereotype of victims.

    This was a good episode though. SVU is something in between a drama show with social commentary and a sensationalist soap opera. The last few episodes were a bit to much of the latter, so I’m glad to see this one come up.

    • James Pollock says:

      Can’t say for abuse victims, but workers in the sex industry tend to have a fairly high rate of substance abuse. Yes, there really are strippers who are just doing it to pay their way through college, but there are lots more who are doing it to feed their addiction(s).

      Rightly or wrongly, people with substance abuse issues are not seen as credible witnesses. This is partly due to the fact that addicts become skilled liars; partly because their connection to reality becomes impaired, and partly because (long-time) substance abusers usually present a more muddled, confused, and disoriented narrative.

      • TokoBali, I had the same thought — the witness’s freakout and coke-fueled debauchery could definitely be seen as evidence of his trauma. And, yeah, prosecutors often have to work with witnesses who have substance abuse problems. Especially, as James notes, sex workers. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which came first — the trauma or the drugs. Vulnerable people often self-medicate with illegal drugs — and drugs can cause extreme vulnerability.

  2. I thought this was a good overall episode covering an important topic. I like Barba as an ADA – they should use him more often. It seemed there were a lot of lucky breaks for the detectives to get the story to it’s end (for instance Fin just happened to know a guy who went to Manor Hill, who just happened to know about the molesting and was willing to talk about it). The writers also overcompensated or tried too hard to make a statement about not being anti-homosexual, by having the token “good guy” gay teacher who everyone apparently liked. His admission to having relationships with older boys seemed creepy and awkward to me, but was practically overlooked by the detectives as not being a real issue. Since when is a teacher having a relationship with students (no matter how old they are) to be condoned?

    They also mentioned one of the teachers now living in Thailand. Shouldn’t federal authorities somewhere be notified about him, as being a probable pedophile? I know it’s out of the NYPD’s jurisdiction, but maybe he’s involved in the child sex trafficking in Thailand that is sadly so prevalent these days.

    • James Pollock says:

      “Since when is a teacher having a relationship with students (no matter how old they are) to be condoned? ”
      A) After the statute of limitations for statutory rape has run out. or B) when the students are over the age of consent when the sex occurs.

      It’s a private school, so it can make rules about whether or not students over the age of consent can have relationships with teachers (usually no, sometimes yes unless the student is in the teacher’s class(es), and rarely no policy exists. However, those rules don’t have the force of law.

      • Alenna, I hear ya. I was really disturbed by the “good-guy” teacher pedophile. I’m not sure what the point was, but the whole device was awkward and strained. I didn’t see a real distinction between the teacher who supposedly loved his students before having sex with them, and the (now dead, demented, or gone) teachers who had sex with them with an unknown amount of love in their heart.

        James, in DC, it’s illegal for a teacher to have sex with a minor (under 18 years old) student at his school, regardless of whether the school is public or private. Even if a case wasn’t prosecutable because the SOL had run out, I would hope the cops still wouldn’t condone it. I found the detectives reactions in this episode to be somewhat bizarre.

        • James Pollock says:

          I’m pretty sure it’s illegal to have sex with a minor just about everywhere, regardless of whether one is a teacher or not, and the regardless of whether the minor is a student or not. If you look, I make reference only to those relationships between students who are of age.

          In handling relationships between teachers and students who are of age, there are two conflicting points of view. One is that the teacher-student relationship is one that is inherently one with an imbalance of power, and therefore students must be protected from them. The other view is that people who are of age may decide with whom they would like relationships, and what form those relationships may take.

          Obviously, it is more of a problem at the college level than at the high school level, because so few high-school students are of age. Some schools take the position that they are not in loco parentis, that their students are adults and therefore should be treated like adults. Of course, it is entirely possible to be predatory on 18-year-olds just as it is possible to be predatory on 16-year-olds, but like or hate it, our society accepts the one and condemns the other.

          • Chakat Firepaw says:

            Many, if not most, jurisdictions have ages of consent which are below the age of majority. The lowest I know of recently for the US was 12[1], although that has since been repealed leaving 14-16 the range for most of them IIRC.

            Note that most jurisdictions have increased ages of consent for situations where there is an imbalance of power, such as with a teacher-student relationship.

            [1] Non-virgin girl in Mississippi, yes it was a leftover from the days that ages of consent ranged from 9-12 in the US.

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