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.
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.”
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!