Penn state report: keeping the focus on the victims

The adult men who were the child sexual abuse victims in this now renowned case, receive little honor as the heroes and survivors they are. Heroes for having lived with this childhood tragedy through their growing up years, and now, finally, taking the opportunity to speak out when the perpetrator has been finally brought to justice.

In the news, we hear the name of the perpetrator, but rarely are there words to honor the survivors.  This is and should be about the survivors.    These boys, known to be fifteen, but in all likelihood more than one hundred.  It is well documented that for every one child identified as the victim of a perpetrator, that perpetrator has molested at least 80 more.

Molested.  Such a soft term for the child rape these children experienced.  It is amazing how our use of words around child rape softens the blow for the reader…but not the survivor.  For the survivor it is like a slap in the face to diminish the impact of what was done.  Usually the sexual abuse takes more than one form, and the grooming process used by the perpetrator also takes many forms.  But the child…now adult…remembers it all.  The easy going nature of the perpetrator, how easily he manipulated his way into access through his behavior with the child’s parents, and the step by step invasions into the child’s space.  The slow, methodical emotional and psychological, then physical, closeness.  The mental traps that were laid and carefully set, that cause the child to feel confused.  To feel loved, noticed, appreciated then used and abused and trapped.  It is so confusing…how can this seemingly generous and wonderful man do these terrible things that make me feel so awful?  Can it be real? It must be me, something about me, that causes all of this, is the usual child’s self-explanation.

Getting out of the mental trap is made easier when the child is able to tell an adult who believes him, and speaks out directly against the abuse.  When an adult says to the child, “I’m so sorry this has happened to you.  It is wrong.  He should not do that.” The relief of the child is palpable.  His unspoken thoughts are confirmed:  he is wrong.  Now I know I am right to feel the way I do.  Now I can get help to make him stop doing this to me.

When a child has a parent in whom he can trust, or any other adult who responds positively to the child, then takes the appropriate action of reporting the abuse to the authorities, the child’s life journey is changed.  He is not alone.  He no longer feels that he has contributed to this chain of events.  He begins to understand that yes, indeed, adults are not all good to children even…especially when they blatantly pretend to be one of the best in the  community.

When the authorities do what they should, and properly investigate, believe the child, and file the case for prosecution, the child and his family feel vindicated, validated and valued.  In most cases, there is no physical evidence of abuse on the body of the victim.  These crimes are committed in private, so there are no witnesses.  Often there is no physical injury. When the child can cite dates and times, and when a parent or other careprovider can validate that the child was with the perpetrator during those times, that helps the investigation.  Most often the perpetrator will not admit to the crimes.  So the case rests on a he said – he said foundation.  In the Penn State case, it was the testimony of the victims that convinced the jury of the crimes committed by the perpetrator.  There was no physical evidence, I do not believe.  One person’s word against another.  What was revealed, however, in this multivictim case, was  pattern of behavior on the part of the perpetrator.  That was what convinced the jury, I’m sure.

Imagine the same scenario, however, when it is just one boy speaking out against a perpetrator.  And that perpetrator is the boy’s father, and that father is a well known and highly respected professional in the local, or even state or national community.  When that boy reveals the abuse, the case may not go so well.  Or when it is several boys but it is not a high profile case.  Or when, the father is so highly esteemed that the investigators cannot believe that he would do such a thing and decide not to file the case with the prosecutor.

What about boys with disabilities such as intellectual disabilities, cerebral palsy, autism, or other disabilities that affect cognitive and/or communication skills?  In these cases, too often the investigators equate mental ability or verbal ability with credibility for reasons I am still trying to figure out.  They more often than not, discredit the report of the boy and defend the poor maligned perpetrator.

Having a disability, particularly one that effects cognitive and/or communication skills, automatically demeans their viability as a witness in the eyes of the untrained responder.  And, unfortunately, most responders do not have training in understanding children and adults with these disabilities…or any other, I might add.

Thus, children with disabilities, who are first abused at rates much higher than generic children, face additional barriers to getting help and protection when they report the abuse they are experiencing.

It is time to pay attention to the survivors of abuse.  To listen to advice they have for those who could have and should have helped them.

It is also time for each person to take responsibility in their own lives or jobs for unpleasant tasks.  In the case of Penn State, it appears that the janitors did not want to report what they had observed with their own eyes, for fear of losing their jobs.  The executives in charge of the school did not want to help the children they knew to be victims of their employee, for reasons we can only imagine.  We do not know why they failed the children in favor of their adult employee.  But we know they failed.

The lessons of the Freeh report on the Penn State child sexual abuse scandal will hopefully reach not only those with a legal responsibility to report abuse when it comes to their attention, but also others who learn of abuse or suspected abuse, will take action to support the victim.  It is time.