June 21, 2012

ONE OF THE MOST arresting moments in the trial of Jerry Sandusky so far came last week, when an alleged victim of the former Penn State assistant football coach took the stand and explained why he never said anything about the abuses he’d suffered years before. “Who would believe you?” he said. Sandusky’s “an important guy. Everybody knows him. He was a football coach. Who would believe kids?”

Disbelief has always been a problem in the prevention of childhood sexual abuse. Although the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, enacted in the mid-1970s and revised several times since, established a national definition of child abuse, reports don’t always happen. Fear of backlash and its consequences may deter some adults from reporting others, but fear of disbelief — as testimony in the Sandusky trial have shown — is also still very much an issue.

While there may never be an adequate solution that gets adults to trust children’s stories in these traumatic situations, one thing that can help increase plausibility is readily available public information that reveals the frequency with which children are abused. Some such information already exists: The Department of Health and Human Services, for instance, issues an annual report that includes statistics compiled from child protective service agencies nationwide. As important as they are, however, these numbers are general, and they don’t necessarily convey to parents the risks their children can face in their daily lives.

That’s why a recent Oregon Supreme Court decision was a good one. Last week, the court ruled that the Boy Scouts of America must release 20,000 pages of documents containing information on, among other things, alleged child molesters in the organization over the last few decades. The documents were used as evidence in a 2010 lawsuit by a plaintiff who claimed that the Scouts had failed to protect him from an assistant scoutmaster’s abuse decades before, and the court ruled that made them public.

The Scouts argued that releasing the documents may “negatively impact victims’ privacy and have a chilling effect on the reporting of abuse.” But more public information means more awareness. Should incidents occur in the future, disbelief might not be such an issue when there is documented evidence on the table.

It’s true that the Boy Scouts organization makes commendable efforts to combat any such abuse, but a private institution releasing this information to the public can only help more people “believe kids.” As the Sandusky trial has shown, that’s a pressing need.