Maine West hazing verdict balances fairness with vigilance

EDITORIALS

January 15, 2014 5:54PM

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Updated: February 17, 2014 8:42AM

Because society has learned that the problem of sexual abuse is all too real and should never be denied, we must be hyper-vigilant.

But with the need for vigilance comes the corollary that we must use good judgment and be resolutely fair. There is no room for error. Children’s lives hang in the balance, but so too do the reputations and careers of those accused.

With that in mind, we believe Cook County Judge Jeffrey L. Warnick ruled sensibly Wednesday in dismissing charges of hazing and misdemeanor battery against a former Maine West High School soccer coach.

The evidence presented at trial revealed a pattern of offensive and even harmful acts by older Maine West soccer players against younger teammates — behavior that one defense attorney summed up as “gross” and “disgusting.” But to call these acts criminal sexual assault, as the Des Plaines Police initially did, would be a stretch. And while we feel certain the coach, Michael Divincenzo, could have done more to discourage such behavior, prosecutors failed to make a convincing case he was complicit. On the contrary, the evidence showed that Divincenzo himself was at times outraged.

Prolonging the tragedy now would be if Divincenzo were not allowed to move on in his life, rebuilding his reputation and finding another job in his field.

Accusations of sexual abuse — levied formally or bandied about as rumor — have a way of snowballing, pushed along by the best intentions. To underreact, rather than overreact, is the far greater danger.

It is admirable, then, that Maine West administrators wasted little time in responding to allegations that several soccer players had engaged in “inappropriate conduct.” The players were suspended from the team and five coaches, including Divincenzo, were reassigned. The administrators also contacted the Des Plaines police and the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.

The police wanted to bring criminal sexual assault charges against the players, but settled for misdemeanor charges when the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office of felony review would not concur. The police later dropped even the lesser charges. The internal institutional struggle here is obvious — nobody in a position of authority wants to take allegations of sexual assault lightly, and certainly nobody wants to be seen in the media as doing that. Careers can be lost that way.

DCFS conducted its own investigation and concluded there was credible evidence that abuse — beatings and sodomy — took place.

But then came Divincenzo’s bench trial before Judge Warnick, during which nothing appeared to be quite as advertised. According to testimony, team “initiations” generally involved tackling a player, giving him a wedgie and poking at his rear end with fingers or sticks. Many players subjected to the hazing said they were poked only in the “butt cheek” and dismissed it all as horseplay. And, they said, Divincenzo, quite from being the ringleader, was furious when he found out.

Let us be clear: Real abuse happened. What one young man can laugh off as “horseplay” might be highly traumatic for another. And if nothing more, Divincenzo is guilty of failing to foster a team culture of mutual respect and support. Had he done so, none of this would have happened.

But Judge Warnick had the good sense to see this case for what it was.

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