Ignorance of child sex abuse enables revictimization

Nov. 26, 2011

It is incomprehensible to think that someone such as Jerry Sandusky, former football defensive coordinator at Penn State University, would rape a 10-year-old boy in a campus locker room shower, as authorities have alleged.

More disturbing is how many bystanders reportedly “knew,” and how long authorities say that Sandusky was able to continue victimizing young boys. The betrayal that the youths experienced in that victimization, and what they continue to experience since it has been revealed, is deplorable.

It is rare to have a non-offending witness to most child sexual abuse incidents. How could anyone watch a rape in progress, and not step in to stop it? Why would a legendary coach such as Joe Paterno not demand the administration report the rape? Why would students riot about the firing of Paterno, knowing that he did nothing when university administrators looked the other way? Ignorance.

If we want to prevent future victimization of children, and if we truly want to support victims of child sexual abuse instead of revictimizing them with thoughtless behavior, we have to understand it.

Offenders are not the creepy stranger in the trenchcoat we normally think of. They are usually someone the child knows, trusts and loves, and can be an upstanding member of the community. Offenders put themselves in situations where they have access to children and work to gain trust from the child and the parents. Offenders “choose” their victims: Who can be controlled? Who yearns for adult attention? Who may be at risk or have behavioral problems? Because who is going to believe a troubled child over the adult if they do tell?

The offender grooms the child, plays wrestling or touching games to break down resistance to touch, showers them with gifts and kindness. When sex abuse allegations are made, people who know the offender just can’t believe it. The person they know would never be capable of that kind of action, and the offender uses that equity, sadly, to gain belief over the child.

Perversely, bystanders may ignore the victimization because of the offender’s good reputation, or because the child had a troubled history; they may rationalize that because the act didn’t “physically” hurt the child, what’s the big deal? The big deal is that child sexual abuse has a devastating, long-term impact. It changes the way the child views the world, and more importantly, how they view themselves. It makes them feel dirty and worthless, setting up a life of low self-esteem, relationship problems, anger issues and self-destructive behaviors such as cutting, addiction and promiscuity if not treated.

Statistics indicate one in four girls and one in seven boys will become victims of child sexual abuse, and these are only reported numbers. Believe the child. They rarely lie about child sex abuse, but sex offenders are expert liars.

Abused children often exhibit symptoms; changes in behavior, anger, nightmares, self-abuse, depression, drop in grades, perfectionism, regressive behaviors, bedwetting (know the symptoms; check our website for a list).

Pedophiles rarely have only one victim; they can have hundreds if not stopped. Tennessee law states anyone who suspects child sexual abuse is mandated to report, and the person with the direct information must make the report, not their supervisor. Let’s strive to be appropriate bystanders who will report suspected abuse and not revictimize the victims with ignorant words and actions.

Verna Wyatt is executive director of You Have the Power.


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