There is nothing new about child sexual abuse, and there is nothing surprising about the events unfolding at Penn State University (and now Syracuse University) or at religious congregations around the country. In fact, if there is a surprise, it’s that this issue generally receives so little attention, and that so few institutions and parents take the steps to prevent it.
We know that approximately one half a million children are thought to be sexually abused each year. If one half a million children each year were getting pneumonia or dying in airplane crashes it would be front page news and covered as a national crisis.
It’s taken the abuse of children by priests and football coaches for headlines to emerge. I fear that once the Penn State case is resolved, the headlines will go away again.
The fact is that child sexual abuse is a devastating social, spiritual and public health crisis. It is also a crime. As many as one in four women and one in six men were sexually abused before they were 18 years of age. In 90 percent of the cases, the children know their abusers well-they are parents, family members, neighbors, clergy, coaches, scout leaders, and teachers. Despite the latest news stories, girls are much more likely to be abused; more than 8 in 10 juvenile sex crime victims are female.
I don’t know who first said, “all it takes for bad things to happen is for good people to sit back and do nothing,” but surely it applies here, just as it applied to the cover-ups in the Roman Catholic Church (and other denominations) about child sexual abuse. More than fifteen people at Penn State may have known about Coach Sandusky’s behaviors, preferring to label them as “horsing around” rather than rape.
My colleague and sex abuse expert Steve Brown wrote in a column for RHRealityCheck:
“In any particular abuse situation there is an abuser, a victim, and (almost always) bystanders. This is true in bullying, street violence, as well as child sexual abuse. One of the most important questions that the Penn State situation, and cases like it, raise is-what is it about the nature of intimate sexual violence that stops so many bystanders from taking action?”
The first response by students at Penn State was to rally in defense of Coach Joe Paterno, who allegedly was one of those bystanders who didn’t fire Sandusky or turn him in to police for the rape. I was impressed by the courage of at least one young man who demanded that Penn State’s leaders be held accountable, even in the face of a large group defending Paterno. The moment of silence at one Saturday football game felt too little, too late to me.
America’s lack of understanding about sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and our responsibilities to address them-including Herman Cain’s inappropriate joke about Anita Hill just one week after his own sexual harassment allegations came to light-stun me. I wrote a recent online column “Raising Cain on Sexual Harassment” and many of the commentators attacked me personally. I shared my own experience of being sexually harassed by a faculty member and losing my job while I was in college; several of the comments suggested that it was time I got over it. The tone-deafness of significant parts of the public to the Cain allegations tells me that a significant number of people still don’t understand how devastating harassment, abuse, and misconduct can be-or that they are all illegal and immoral.
The Religious Declaration on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing, now endorsed by nearly 4000 religious leaders from more than 70 faith traditions, states that “we sin when this sacred gift [of sexuality] is abused or exploited.” It calls for religious leaders and people of faith to speak out “against the pain, brokenness, oppression, and loss of meaning that many experience about their sexuality.”
The lesson of the past few weeks is speaking out. If you know of someone who is abusing a child, either physically or sexually, take action. If you see it, intervene. It you suspect it, confront them or report it. If you’re not sure about what you are seeing, contact Stop It Now at 1-888-PREVENT or www.stopitnow.org and discuss your next steps. If you hear or witness bullying, speak up against it and teach your children to do the same. Speak out against sexual harassment and take it seriously.
If you have children, “abuse-proof” them. Use Penn State and Syracuse University as a teachable moment. Make sure that the programs your children attend-scouts, soccer, school, church or synagogue-have a strong policy on keeping children safe, including screening and background checks for volunteers and employees and never being alone with children. Make sure that your child knows that most people would never hurt children, but that an older, bigger, stronger person should never touch a child’s genitals. Make sure your child knows that adults don’t ask children to be their friends or keep secrets, and that if someone makes them feel bad, funny, or uncomfortable with their touch or their words, they should tell you. Tell them that their body is wonderful, it belongs to them, and that they can say no to unwanted touch. And finally, tell them to come and tell you if someone does touch them. You may not be able to prevent the first case of abuse, but if your child is equipped with language and this information, you can prevent the second-just like the officials at Penn State could have stopped at least some of these young men from being abused.
When abuse happens, it is never a time to keep silence, but always a time to speak.
Debra Haffner | Nov 22, 2011 7:03 PM