Recent headlines making the evening news and the front page of nearly every newspaper in the nation informed the world that former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky had been convicted of 45 counts of child sexual abuse involving 10 victims over a 15-year span, and that Penn State would be paying an unprecedented price for its inaction surrounding the case.
Not long after Sandusky's conviction, a 267-page report compiled by former FBI director Louis Feech was released. The report stated that several high-ranking officials from Penn State had chosen not to report that Sandusky had been seen sexually abusing a child in the showers on the campus. Now, the National Collegiate Athletic Association has imposed a $60 million fine on Penn State, erased 13 years of wins, pulled football scholarships and is not allowing the team to attend a bowl game during the ban. In announcing the penalties, Mark Emmert, the NCAA president, said that no punishment the NCAA could impose would change the damage done by Sandusky's acts, but "the culture, actions and inactions that allowed them to be victimized will not be tolerated in collegiate athletics." The statue of Joe Paterno was unceremoniously removed from its prominent location on campus in part because Penn State's president stated that it could be seen as an obstacle to healing for the victims of sexual violence.
It breaks my heart to think that the failure to report Sandusky's sexual victimization of a little boy occurred, at least in part, because the reputation of an institution was considered more important than the safety of a child. Or, worse yet, that child sexual abuse could have been considered as no big deal. Maybe we don't know every detail of who knew what, but the report states that irrefutably four top level officials knew of the abuse and allowed Sandusky to continue. The recent actions by Penn State and the NCAA clearly agree.
How many lives were destroyed because of this silence? Sadly, childhood sexual abuse is nothing new; sexual violence occurring within the sanctity of institutions like Penn State is nothing new; people knowing about the abuse and pretending it is not happening is nothing new. What is new is that for months now the all too common tragedy of sexual abuse against our children is being headlined by the media. Time will tell if this heightened awareness of one of the most devastating of crimes will in fact change anything.
Prevent Child Abuse America defines sexual abuse of a child as inappropriately exposing or subjecting the child to sexual contact, activity or behavior. This abuse can occur in cities or in a rural country setting, in families who are rich or poor, crossing all racial and cultural groups. Although girls are more frequently the victims of sexual abuse, the number of boys being abused is much larger than most people realize.
According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), 15 percent of all sexual assault and rape victims are younger than age 12, and 1 in every 6 females in America will be the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. For males, that number is 1 in 33. In the vast majority of incidents, the victim knew the person who abused them. David Finkelhor's 1990 study, "Sexual Abuse in a National Survey of Adult Men and Women: Prevalence, Characteristics and Risk" shows even more alarming numbers. This study indicates that as many as 1 in 4 females and 1 in 6 males will be sexually assaulted by the age of 18. These are the statistics currently being used by most rape crisis centers around the nation.
It's nearly impossible to know the true numbers because most victims of child sexual abuse keep this terrible secret, sometimes forever. Imagine a classroom of 20 children ... probably five or six have experienced sexual abuse, with most telling no one. The heavy burden is locked inside of them. The physical and emotional scars can take a terrible toll on these children, as well as on adults who were abused as children and have never told. Disclosing sexual abuse can be very difficult. Pedophiles often develop a relationship with the victim and the family over months or years before the abuse begins. Because of this grooming process, the perpetrator gains the trust and love of the child's family, and often the child, as well. Although child sexual abuse is never the fault of the victim, they frequently feel extreme guilt and shame. The person who sexually victimizes children will sometimes tell them that they will be harmed, their parent will be harmed, that they will be taken away from the family, or that their family will no longer love them if they disclose what is happening to them. In many cases, the person who is violating a child is their parent, relative or guardian.
The sexual abuse of a child is rarely a one-time occurrence. Numerous national studies find that the abuse usually occurs multiple times, escalates over time and continues on average one to four years. Child offenders frequently prefer a child in a certain age range, and have been known to have as many as 400 victims in their lifetime. Although on occasion it is a crime of opportunity, in the vast majority of cases the offender creates opportunity. According to "Darkness to Light," those who sexually abuse children are drawn to settings where they can gain easy access to children on a regular basis, such as sports leagues, faith centers, clubs and schools. This provides the opportunity to select potential victims, often using very specific criteria. Research shows that children in single-parent homes, in homes with poor parent/child relationships, in families experiencing domestic violence, or who endure the physical or emotional unavailability of one or both parents are at greatest risk of child sexual abuse.
Although it is difficult for a victim to disclose sexual abuse, it is not impossible, even many years later. As in the Sandusky case, pedophiles choose a profession that gives them regular access to children. They become coaches, teachers, mentors, school bus drivers, youth leaders, etc. Sandusky went so far as to create his own program that gave him direct access to at-risk youth. Fortunately the vast majority of people in these professions are there not to victimize, but to help children live healthy and happy lives. The problem is that spotting the one who is sexually abusing children can be difficult or impossible. They are often the very ones who would be least suspected of this horrific crime.
Although many groups and organizations have been mandated reporters for years, West Virginia recently passed a law that makes everyone a mandatory reporter of child abuse. As adults we must recognize that sexual acts are being forced on our children. Forty years ago this was a taboo subject, and one that most people could not even imagine was occurring. Now we know that not only is it happening, it affects at least 25-30 percent of our children. These numbers should scare us, but that doesn't mean that we suspect everyone. It just means that as adults, and parents, we must pay attention to what is happening in the lives of our children. If a child's behavior changes, in big or small ways, pay attention. There is an abundance of information available on the warning signs of child sexual abuse. There also are a variety of services available throughout West Virginia. Anyone having questions can contact a rape crisis or child advocacy center for more information. If child sexual abuse is suspected, report it to Child Protective Services through your local Department of Health and Human Resources.
No institution or individual should ever be more important than the protection of our children. We can't fool ourselves into thinking that Penn State is the only place this has or will ever happen. Mandatory reporting is just that, mandatory reporting. Before all is said and done, the Penn State scandal will likely bring down many powerful people, put one behind bars for life, and scar the institution itself, possibly beyond repair. At the end of the day, what is really important is the healing of the children Sandusky victimized over dozens of years. It took great courage for those who came forward, and in many ways, took on the powerful Penn State. Their actions undoubtedly saved other children from the abuse they endured. But we must also keep in mind that for every person who discloses, there are dozens who do not. Whether those who are unable to tell are still children or they are adults, they too, possess great strength and courage - the kind that allows them to survive in spite of all that has happened to them, one day at a time.
Help is available to survivors, no matter how long ago the sexual abuse occurred. Call 800-339-1185 locally, or the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE. Callers do not have to give their names if they do not choose to do so. A person who sexually abuses children takes their power away, so it is so vitally important for a survivor to have control over what and when they want to share, and what they need to assist them in healing.
(Marcia Drake has been the executive director of Women's Aid in Crisis for nearly 20 years. The domestic and sexual violence program covers Randolph, Upshur, Barbour, Tucker, Webster and Braxton counties.)