They started calling right away, just after the Penn State sex abuse scandal hit the news.
Teens and young men, mostly, who had spent years in a private hell that nobody knew of and that they never spoke of.
But something in the sound of Jerry Sandusky’s voice, as the former defensive coordinator told the nation that he was only “horsing around” in the shower with little boys, moved them to speak. Or maybe it was the awful familiarity of the grand jury indictment, seeing their own secret laid out in black and white.
The nation’s sex abuse hotlines are ringing like mad — for at least one national hotline, at 54 percent above normal — with victims who have decided to speak out.
“I haven’t seen anything like it. I’ve been doing this for 10 years now, I’ve never seen any type of reaction like this,” said Jennifer Marsh, who is the hotline director at the Rape Abuse & Incest National Network, which is based in the District but takes calls and e-mails from all over the nation.
At that hotline, 72 percent of the victims who reach out are between 13 and 24, and half of them are discussing abuse or rapes that took place five or more years ago, Marsh said.
“A lot of them are male,” Marsh said. “When they go online to reach us, it’s usually male victims, because of the anonymity they find online.”
This broken silence might be the only positive legacy of the Penn State scandal and the spectacle of a pillar of the community being charged with 40 counts of sexually abusing children for 15 years.
Sandusky is scheduled to make a courtroom appearance Dec. 13. Rape and abuse counselors are bracing for another onslaught of calls that may be triggered by more details about the way Sandusky allegedly used his charity for disadvantaged kids, the Second Mile Foundation, to court his victims with gifts, trips and laserlike focus. In some cases, he is accused of raping them.
Already, a string of similar tragedies is being unwound across the country. Syracuse University fired assistant basketball coach Bernie Fine over the weekend after a third man came forward with accusations that he was molested by Fine when he was a ball boy. The first accuser said he was inspired by the Sandusky victims.
And Steffon Rodney Christian, a former library aide and coach in a Manassas elementary school, was arrested this month after a 29-year-old man reported that he was molested as a fourth-grader. Police told Washington Post reporter Josh White that Christian became close with students — especially those experiencing family trouble — by taking them on golf trips, hosting them at his home and giving them gifts.
In Fairfax County the other day, Chris Davies put the phone down just two minutes before I called him.
“I just got off the line with someone, a man who said he was abused as a child and because of everything he’s seen in the news, he finally wants to come forward and prosecute,” said Davies, who supervises the counseling team at Fairfax County’s Office for Women & Domestic and Sexual Violence Services.
I was stunned at the coincidence.
Davies wasn’t. He cited estimates that one out of every six men is sexually abused before he turns 18. There’s a robust support group for men who were sexually abused as kids and meets weekly at the Pohick Regional Library in Burke. And a group called 1in6.org, which has counseling and other services for men dealing with the horrible secret of abuse, is being used by more and more victims every day, he said.
But why is there such a pronounced reaction now, to this scandal, when the world for years has been digesting the sexual abuse of boys by clergy in the Catholic Church?
“Maybe we as a country are more interested in football than Catholicism,” Davies half-joked.
Or maybe it was easier to isolate that horror as a single scandal in a single organization.
Only 23 percent of American adults are Catholic, so it might have been easy for 77 percent of America to blame those crimes on a religion that wasn’t their own.
And Davies is actually right: Football — love it or hate it — probably touches the lives of more Americans than Catholicism. Just wait until the Super Bowl displays start showing up in the supermarket.
It is the profile of a pedophile that is the red flag here, not a specific organization.
They often are the very people we trust most with children: teachers, coaches, mentors, clergy, family members.
The saintly and predatory characteristics are so closely intertwined. And that’s what makes it so confusing for observers, who often aren’t sure what to think about a coach who seems oddly interested in one kid, or a family member who tries to get a child alone at inappropriate times.
“We’ve also had more people coming to the hotline who are talking about suspecting abuse, not knowing if they should trust their gut,” Marsh said.
“They are concerned about getting an adult in trouble,” she said. What if they are wrong? It’s a horrible accusation to make.
“You need to trust your gut,” she said. “Your responsibility is to protect the child, not the adult.”