Colleague/coauthor convicted of child porn posession – now what?
September 9, 2018 4:28 AM   Subscribe

I work in academia and am nominally the leader of a global open-source effort which has been going on for nearly two decades. We have many collaborators, and have published many academic papers. One of our most productive colleagues was just convicted of posession and redistribution of child porn. What do we do now?

He lives outside the US on another continent. He plead guilty and was given a suspended sentence, and is now a registered sex offender. All I know of the matter is what showed up in the newspaper, and based on that, some of the materials he viewed and shared were evidently quite awful. The activity was going on for as long as I've know him (which is over a decade), but the news only broke this month. He's been suspended from his work.

I still can't believe he was doing something like this; I had no indication whatsoever, and still can't fathom it (he has a family and kids!). At first I thought this was some kind of smear campaign against him, but the newspaper report is pretty clear it's real. I don't believe he produced any material; based on the descriptions, he went searching for it and found file sharing sites and re-uploaded some things too. That's all I know.

I feel bad for his family and children, and am torn about what to do. Intellectually, in our field of work, he is brilliant and a significant contributor and leader of many efforts. At the same time ... ugh, this is just sickening.

My short-term concerns are with our ongoing work and the open-source community we created. He is co-principal investigator on a US grant I lead through my institution; I'm not sure what will happen about his role at his institution. We are also currently writing another paper with many dozens of coauthors, and he's been doing the bulk of the work on that paper this past year. At least one female coauthor wrote to me yesterday that she just learned the news, and feels she should withdraw as coauthor, and worries for the entire community we've all built over the years. I worry too. I don't know how it is in other countries, but here in the US, being a registered sex offender is radioactive. I've never had even a remotely similar experience and don't know the extent to which our body of work will now be poisoned by association.

Some immediate questions about my responsibilities that come to mind:

1. Should I tell my academic institution (in California) what I have learned?

2. Should I reveal it to the coauthors on the paper?

3. Should I reveal it to the editor of the journal where we are submitting the paper?

4. Should I reveal it to the rest of the community?

5. Are there any similar cases that I could read about, to get more perspective and ideas for how to handle this better?

Finally, I am sorry if I'm going about this wrongly, or am underemphasizing the gravity of what he's done. I tried to write this concisely and without identifying details to limit possible exposure for his family's sake. I don't know what to think about him personally; I suppose that will take time to work through. At the moment, I tell myself he must have suffered abuse as a child that left indelible psychological scars and this was a consequence. Maybe that's right, or maybe I'm cutting him too much slack.
posted by anonymous to Society & Culture (17 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
Your first priority needs to be the ongoing work and open-source community. You must do what is needed to preserve that. Concerns about his family and about him need to take a back seat. Because of that, you need to excise his from the current projects and from the community immediately and very definitively. Your conflicted feelings come through very clearly in your post. There should be no ambiguity in your official communications and actions going forward. Otherwise, you will likely lose more colleagues and possibly all the work up to this point. Contact him and make arrangements to have him removed from the work and transfer everything to someone else for now. Perhaps in the future he can come back on board, but for now get him off of it.
posted by eleslie at 5:04 AM on September 9, 2018 [8 favorites]


This is awful, I'm so sorry. I think you do need to talk to your co-authors on the joint paper to see if it is possible to complete the work without his involvement; if not, I think the only alternative is to terminate the project. I don't think it would be ethical or even prudent to continue to co-author with him as if nothing had happened--as if he hadn't been complicit in the rape of children, by his downloading and dissemination of these images--and I would be astonished if any of the other co-authors would want to work with him once they know about this. For the grant on which he is co-PI, I assume you (and your institution) will need to check in with the body making the grant and see what they say about the impact of his suspension.
posted by Aravis76 at 5:09 AM on September 9, 2018 [2 favorites]


I think the answers to 1-3 have to be yes. And I would not be surprised to see him quietly agree to withdraw. The tougher questions will arise if he doesn't.
posted by megatherium at 5:09 AM on September 9, 2018


Bring this to the attention of your general counsel. They will help develop a plan and will sort out transitioning. Have you looked at the fine print on the grants for succession plan language? That might inform some of the next steps. Your university likely has a team that handles incidents like this. Help them help you.
posted by childofTethys at 5:45 AM on September 9, 2018 [18 favorites]


“Perhaps in the future he can come back on board, but for now get him off of it.”

No. He can never come back to this project. You’re going to have to process your personal feelings separately.

There’s a certain amount of internal shock you are going to have to process through independent of your project and colleagues, and I will get to that piece in a moment. Your group’s collective public legal reaction must be to acknowledge this man’s wrongdoing and excise him from the project in all the ways your legal counsel advises. Your professional response needs to be swift and unequivocal so that the group work can continue. Others will fill his role. It will be fine.

On a personal level, what you are experiencing with this is a certain type of “rite of passage” or life stage that everyone faces sooner or later. There will be grief, anger and soul searching. You thought you could trust this guy, and now you can’t trust your own judgment. That’s what sexual predators do, they make us doubt ourselves at our core. It’s ok to have deep conflicting emotions right now. Dealing with this crisis will likely change your world view, your relationship to others and to yourself. Everyone involved in this project will go through the same. Be compassionate towards yourself and others while maintaining an unwavering stance that there is no professional place on this project for a convicted sexual predator.
posted by jbenben at 5:56 AM on September 9, 2018 [34 favorites]


Yes to 1, 2, and 3 immediately. Yes, to 4 that you have received receipt of notification from the first three.

I am so sorry you are going through this and wish I had an answer to 5.
posted by Gotanda at 6:01 AM on September 9, 2018 [2 favorites]


Immediately, contact your institution's ethics committee or similar group. Do not withhold any information.

Not only is it the right thing to do, it will protect you from any liability.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 6:13 AM on September 9, 2018 [31 favorites]


I think other folks have spoken to your concerns about 1-4 (all emphatic "yes").

As for #5... sort of? I can think of a number of cases of open source maintainers being booted from projects or controversies around people in projects. None seem quite parallel to yours, though.

The Drupal project recently ousted a contributor over what appears to be his involvement with "Gorean" subculture and subsequent beliefs. This was handled incredibly poorly even if Dries Buyteart (project lead/founder) had good reason. Lesson to learn from this is to be very, very clear why you're taking any actions you take - and be public about it. Also, the ousted member contested the ousting - which, one hopes, will not happen in your case.

Brendan Eich was pressured to resign as Mozilla CEO after it came to light he donated money to support prop 8 (anti gay marriage). What Eich did was legal, but repulsive to many in the Mozilla organization and wider circles. The Mozilla board knew of this before he was made CEO (AIUI) and they failed to understand what elevating him to CEO would signal to the wider community.

You can find all manner of controversies of late over codes of conduct and speaker misconduct, etc. The common thread is often around failure to act quickly and decisively, along with a small passionate chorus of "free speech" defenders who argue against removing problematic people from projects/events.

None of these are direct parallels, but I point them out to emphasize the importance of taking swift, decisive action now and being completely unwavering about removing a registered sex offender from the project. This means, for example, not appearing to condone or excuse any of his behavior no matter how much they've contributed or how nice they've seemed personally.

So - yes, tell the institution immediately, reveal to co-authors immediately, contact the editor immediately, and then confer with other stakeholders in the project about communicating to the rest of the community and do so as quickly as possible. If you can stomach it, ask this person for a formal resignation from the project and assignment of rights to the project or institution that can accept them. Do not give this person an opportunity to publicly address this project or plead their case to the larger community via project channels.

I've great sympathy for you and others who've worked with this person and are coming to learn a horrible truth. But as a project leader you have to separate processing those feelings from managing the project. You've rightly identified that being a registered sex offender is toxic - particularly for the offenses you describe. It needs to be handled as if you're removing a toxic substance from your home.

Finally, I've been around and involved in FOSS projects for quite some time. Feel free to MeMail me if you wish to discuss in more detail.
posted by jzb at 7:02 AM on September 9, 2018 [13 favorites]


You might find this thoughtful discussion of a similar case helpful.
posted by languagehat at 7:52 AM on September 9, 2018 [1 favorite]


You need to tell your institution everything, now and work with them to salvage the grants and formulate statements etc. No one would have expected you to know this, don't worry. You're a (minor) victim here too and you will need to make statements that he never told you he was on trial, the news is the first you heard etc. But then you should be in the clear on that aspect. You do need to make sure no one else in the community was involved or try to I'd guess, if it's a tech project that could conceivably have any ties to file sharing etc your counsel will want to discuss the possibility of that.

The granting body needs to know he's suspended, not coming back, not currently a PI and will shortly be replaced but you don't have to get into why if you're concerned about liability etc. Let your institution handle it.

He can't come back to the project, hell no. Female researcher and other co-authors need to be reassured that they have done nothing wrong and do not need to leave.
posted by fshgrl at 11:06 AM on September 9, 2018 [3 favorites]


Everyone above has already indicated what you should do, but I can't help leaving my own vote to say YES to 1-4, and nth the commenters who are saying to absolutely remove this person from the project immediately. Under no circumstances should you link yourself or your work to someone who is a predator towards children, and this is a "need to know" situation for others who are involved. I have actually been in this situation personally, not professionally, and can say that in my experience any personal ambivalence faded with a bit of time and distance, and as the details sunk in.
posted by DTMFA at 11:08 AM on September 9, 2018 [2 favorites]


Ask him to voluntarily withdraw from the project. This should include working on the current paper and as a grant investigator. If he agrees, it will make severing ties easier for both of you. If he doesn't agree, getting him kicked out of the community and off the grant should be relatively straightforward. The stickiest bit is probably the paper—if he doesn't agree to withdraw from the paper, you might need to rewrite it.

1. Should I tell my academic institution (in California) what I have learned?

Yes. You should absolutely tell your department chair right away.

2. Should I reveal it to the coauthors on the paper?

Yes, right away.

3. Should I reveal it to the editor of the journal where we are submitting the paper?

Yes, but I would try to get the convict here to agree to withdraw first, so you can tell the editor about the agreement. If he doesn't, then you'll have to tell the editor that you didn't come to an agreement.

4. Should I reveal it to the rest of the community?

Yes, but you should settle all of the above first.

Perhaps in the future he can come back on board

Nope, he can't ever come back.
posted by grouse at 12:43 PM on September 9, 2018 [1 favorite]


Do you people ever meet up in real life, posing a situation where he could be a danger to other members and their kids, or is it just an internet-based open source project?

The devil himself can submit pull requests to my project and I'll take them if the code is correct, but I wouldn't want to have to hang out with a monster in the real world.
posted by w0mbat at 12:47 PM on September 9, 2018


Move quickly and decisively on this and when in doubt always fall on the side of disassociating him from the project. You can always decide to bring him back in some capacity later, but right now there are a lot of people who are upset and looking for leadership. That’s your cue.

Intellectually, in our field of work, he is brilliant and a significant contributor and leader of many efforts.

It’s always tempting to treat people differently if they have special talents, but this would be a poor time to do that.

At the moment, I tell myself he must have suffered abuse as a child that left indelible psychological scars and this was a consequence.

We are the victims of victims, but that doesn’t relieve us of our responsibility to have our shit together. Compassion for everyone involved is a good thing as long as it doesn’t turn into making excuses.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 1:48 PM on September 9, 2018 [3 favorites]


w0mbat, the convicted is a co-PI on a grant, and has been suspended from his work, which I assume involves this project. He can submit code anonymously all he wants, but his leadership role is over.

OP, I strongly suggest you get help writing the statements you will be sending out to your coauthors (because you have a large group) and the community. Your legal and/or ethics counsel will probably have input, the communications department may be able to help, and communications may connect with a victim's rights group as well. Your post does try to minimize your coauthor's crime (but he has a family! but he didn't *make* porn! but maybe he was abused!). So get other people to write/edit - you don't want your email getting forwarded to a media outlet as an example of what not to do. Try to get something out within a few days, since you already have a coauthor writing you with concerns.

You can and should immediately reassure the female coauthor who tried to withdraw that you want her to stay and you're working to get statements out.
posted by momus_window at 3:38 PM on September 9, 2018 [11 favorites]


Just want to clarify two things from OP people seem to be missing just for clarity's sake.

The predator was given a suspended sentence. OP was unsure what the predator's status is with his institution.

In case that affects anyone's answer.
posted by Fukiyama at 6:53 PM on September 9, 2018


The predator was given a suspended sentence. OP was unsure what the predator's status is with his institution.

OP, as you no doubt are aware people go batshit when crimes involving sex come up, doubly so when children are involved. This is a bad time to expect people to be making nuanced judgements based on the mundane reality of the case. Assume they stopped hearing anything after "child pornography".

So to repeat my advice above: move aggressively to completely disassociate him from the project. Be very clear to project members that is what is happening. There is always time to revisit that when the immediate crisis has passed. You’ll understand your feelings a lot better then too.

This is just triage of course, but your project could be in real trouble internally and externally unless you stay ahead of this.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:19 PM on September 9, 2018 [2 favorites]


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