Two trials in Pennsylvania that revolved around the issue of child sex abuse were decided today, and both of them were a victory for victims and survivors of abuse, as well as for the country as a whole. This afternoon in Philadelphia Monsignor William Lynn was found guilty of one count in a case in which he was accused of covering up the abuse of children by priests who worked under him by reassigning them to other parishes rather than turning them in to authorities. This evening the Jerry Sandusky trial, in which a college football coach and well-respected community member was charged with grooming and molesting at least ten boys over a period of 15 years, concluded with a guilty verdict on 45 of the 48 remaining counts.
Both of these verdicts have major implications for the future prosecution of these crimes and bode well for the idea of at least starting to put an end to the crime of child sex abuse.
In my mother’s generation people didn’t talk about these things at all, so a man could get away with violating children his entire life and no one but the victims would ever know. When I was a child sex and sexual issues were more openly discussed, but it was still likely that an abused child would not be believed if they told. Even now, in a much more open and honest world, we as a society don’t want to believe that men (or women) who appear normal in every way to their neighbors and friends could commit these acts upon young boys or girls. But it happens a lot. Most sources agree that one in three girls is sexually abused and one in six or seven boys, probably one in every five children overall. And ninety percent or more of them are abused by people they know–not strangers offering candy or trying to abduct children off of the street. When a child is abused it is most likely to be a family member or someone close to the family who is trusted.
The horrifying thing is that the statistics are based on reported findings. Many victims of sexual abuse never tell anyone. Many never face up to it themselves and keep it hidden in dark places in their own psyches. Reporters in the Sandusky case asked often why it was that these children didn’t speak up earlier. One told in court about telling a counselor who flat out told him that he didn’t believe it. Another told the jury that Sandusky had threatened him with never seeing his biological family again. There are myriad reasons why a child may not speak out.
First, there is a power differential. It is an older, more powerful person doing these things. Children often feel powerless to adults, but particularly when they’re told they’d better not ever tell anyone. They also understand they may not be believed by other adults who hold equal power to their abuser. Like another of Sandusky’s victims said, “Who would believe kids?” When I was first abused at nine or ten years old I tried to tell and had it brushed off, and then never tried telling again as one thing after another happened repeatedly over the next seven years or so.
Just as often there is a threat of physical violence or the threat of love being withheld or the loss of family. In my case I was threatened so badly that almost 40 years later when I was writing a play about surviving my abuse I had terrible fears the whole time that he would find out I was writing it and would kill me so that my story would never be told. That is the kind of power he held over me. It took me that long to get to a point where I could deal with it openly. I admire the bravery of the eight young men who testified in the Sandusky trial.
What they did by coming forward and by providing testimony was to show thousands of victims around the country that you can talk about it, that there are people who will believe you, and that maybe, just maybe, justice will prevail. If Jerry Sandusky had been found innocent the issue of child sexual abuse would have gone back into the closet for decades more. What teenager who was thinking of telling a school counselor or their parents or another trusted adult would have gone ahead with that if they had heard the compelling testimony in that case and then saw the perpetrator go free? This was a guilty verdict for the innocents, those who have lost their youth to stealers of souls. It let them know that, yes, you may be believed, the abuse may stop, you can finish your childhood as a child.
This can only be the beginning, though. The Sandusky trial was difficult to hear about because the details were so raw. Yet without it these crimes would continue unabated in the shadows of cities and towns across the nation. They still will–it would be naive to think that it will all stop–and there will be many who still get away with it. But there will be some young men and women who come to terms sooner than people like me and who find the bravery to do something about it. There will be some children who tell a trusted person what is happening and ask for help in making it stop. There may even be those who have committed these crimes, or who haven’t yet but have it within them to do so, who will refrain in the future because if someone who had money, wealth, power, and respect can go to prison for it then there is nothing to stop them from getting caught and going there, too.
The Monsignor Lynn case helps this as well. It sends a signal that those who protect these perpetrators, those who know something is happening but don’t do anything about it for fear of bad publicity or a stain on their name will also be held accountable. The upcoming trials of the Penn State administrators who turned a blind eye to Sandusky’s crimes could further entrench that idea in our judicial system.
It is a difficult way to move toward something positive. The horrible scandals of Catholic priests abusing children (and subsequent Baptist and other scandals along the same lines), the Lynn case, and the Sandusky case and the interest in them seem to indicate that we are waking up as a nation, that we are understanding the darkness among us, and that we are deciding that we must do something about it. As a nation we are acknowledging what the one in five of us already knew–that there are monstrous people in the world, wolves in sheep’s clothing, who prey upon the vulnerable. As a nation we need to work to ensure that they are not allowed to do that or get away with it anymore. These trials have awakened us. These verdicts have reassured us. But we still need to remain vigilant and work together toward bringing light to the dark corners of our culture.