The Time Magazine posted an article about the scandal of child sexual abuse in the Catholic church. It tells this true story,
Frank Finnegan was 7 years old when he was first molested by a local priest. As a child, he didn’t know how to prevent the repeated assaults, which went on for almost two years, or how to go about reporting the crime. So, like most child sexual abuse victims, he kept quiet. It wasn’t until he was in his late 40s preparing to send his own children off into the world, that memories of the trauma became impossible to ignore. “It’s like there was finally room in my brain,” says Finnegan, who now works as a truck driver. So he contacted a lawyer, braced himself and filed a suit.
Statistics indicate that only 10 percent of survivors of sexual abuse report what happened. This means that 90 percent of cases are unreported. Yet one in every six girls and one in every eight boys will be sexually abused before the age of 18. About 30 percent of sexually abused males will become abusers themselves. These are scary numbers.
Why do victims of sexual abuse generally prefer not to report the abuse? And if they do not report, are they not partly to blame for the problem?
Victims of abuse are groomed not only to be abused but also to accept abuse. Just as offenders lure children by grooming them, parents need to “groom” their children not to accept abuse by making them aware of the lies predators use to keep their acts a secret. These lies include statements like these:
“No one will believe you!”
“You wanted this. See how your body reacted?”
“You made me do it.”
“If you tell your mom, she will beat you to death!”
“I will kill your parents if you tell them anything!”
“I’ll kill you if you say anything!”
“I will tell your parents you are doing drugs or alcohol.”
An offender might even do something to convince the child that he or she will carry out the threats—perhaps by killing the child’s pet, for example, thus terrorizing the child into silence. We need to give our children warnings about what might be said to them so that if these things happen, they can come and tell us immediately.
One of the most significant signs of abuse is the feeling of guilt that somehow the child is responsible for the abuse. The perpetrator often plays on this guilt, suggesting that the child should be ashamed of what is happening because somehow it is his or her fault. The abuser says things like, “Look at what you are wearing. See what you made me do?” Carrying the blame, the victim does not want to report and cause trouble.
Another way to exploit a child’s guilt or shame is to allow him or her to do drugs, drink alcohol, or watch pornography. Then if the child wants to expose the abuse, the perpetrator can threaten to tell his or her parents of all the shameful secrets that have been going on.
Sometimes the child does not want to lose his or her relationship with the offender or miss out on the attention he or she has been receiving. This is especially true in the case of offending family members; the family might actually blame the child for the loss of the relationship or for the family member being put in jail. One of my clients was told by her father, “What would you do without me if I went to prison? You wouldn’t be able to survive. You would starve.”
Abusers often tell children, “This is our secret.” Secrets can make a child feel special, and the offender can portray them as being fun.
Some children fear, often quite legitimately, that they may be accused of lying if they report an abuse. Some do not report to avoid being stigmatized as a victim of abuse or rape. They have gotten the unfortunate message that society punishes survivors as much as or more than it punishes offenders.
In counseling, I have repeatedly had to tell children, teens, and adults to repeat these words during every session: “You are not guilty. It was not your fault that this happened to you. You are not to blame.”
Because of the reluctance of many victims to report abuse, it is important to watch for the signs of abuse that we discussed in the last chapter and to warn children about the lies an abuser might use to keep their actions secret. It is important also to make this message very, very clear: “When you come and tell me, I will always believe you.” Remember that children are not likely to make things like this up. Even if they do, every report needs to be investigated because there is a good chance it is true.
Sara’s daughter Ella was in third grade. One day Ella told her that the teacher frequently dismissed all of the students after class except her. When everyone had gone, he would make her sit on his lap and try to touch her private parts. When Sara heard this, she yelled at her daughter and called her a drama queen. “You always make stuff up to attract attention,” she told her. “You are deplorable. Why are you always doing stuff like that?” Sara assumed that the teacher, who was like a father to her, was just patting her on the back and that Ella didn’t understand.
A few years later, when Ella was in sixth grade, she had a private math tutor. At a certain point, Ella did not want to go to her tutoring session and started crying every time Sara tried to drop her at the tutor’s house. Sara told Ella that she was an ungrateful brat. After all, Sara was paying good money for this private tutor. Sara kept asking Ella why she didn’t want to go to tutoring, but Ella wouldn’t tell her. One day, Sara overheard Ella talking to one of her girlfriends on the phone. “My mother is pressuring me to know why I don’t want to go to the math tutor, but I cannot tell her since she did not believe me when it happened when I was in third grade.” When Sara found out that the tutor was abusing her daughter, she was so sad. She had caused her daughter to be exposed to sexual abuse again, and her daughter did not trust her enough to tell her.
Many adolescents do not report abuse because they are afraid of breaking up their family or being sent to a foster home. It’s also difficult for a young person to go against the authority of an adult, especially a parent. It can be hard to come to terms with the fact that the other parent in the household may not believe the truth and deny that the abuse is happening. So many victims of sexual abuse do not report it because they worry no one will believe them. As one anonymous girl testified at Larry Nassar’s trial, “If over these many years just one adult listened and had the courage and character to act, this tragedy could have been avoided. I and so many others would have never, ever met you.”
Sometimes young people do not report an incident because they think what happened to them isn’t bad enough to qualify as abuse. They rationalize. “He was just a friend of the family.” “It only happened once.” “It was just my older brother, and he was only a year older than me.” Sometimes with brothers and sisters who are close in age, both siblings have initiated sexual contact rather than one person holding power over the other. This can cause the same problems as other types of abuse, but the solution is more about healing for both survivors than it is about punishing either of them.
Victims in some instances prefer not to report for fear of the attack they may face from the people closest to them. Rachael Denhollander, a gymnast, quoted earlier, put it bluntly:
My advocacy for sexual assault victims, something I cherished, cost me my church and our closest friends three weeks before I filed my police report. I was left alone and isolated. And far worse, I was impacted because when I came out, my sexual assault was wielded as a weapon against me often by those who should have been the first to support and help, and I couldn’t even do what I loved best, which was to reach out to others. I was subjected to lies and attacks on my character including very publicly by attorney Shannon Smith when I testified under oath. I was being attacked for wanting fame and attention, for making up a story to try to get money. [i]
Always take reports of potential abuse seriously. Watch out for phrases the child might use to try to tell you what is happening, or even questions he or she might ask in order to see your reaction: “What do you think of (name of person)?” “I don’t like (name of person) anymore.” Or, “(name of person) screams at me, hurts my cat, does terrible things to me,” etc.
These are all phrases that should make you stop, listen, and ask more profound questions. They should alert you to something very important that might be going on in your child’s life.