In the Wake of Jerry Sandusky

After the verdict came down in the Jerry Sandusky case, Linda Kelly, the Pennsylvania State Attorney General, stood before the assembled press and said something very important. She said: “One of the recurring themes of the witness’ testimony was … ‘Who would believe a kid?’”

Yes indeed, who would take the word of a mere child over that of a beloved coach like Jerry Sandusky about sexual abuse? Even though we know that such terrible crimes are far too common and the numbers are staggering, we can’t believe it. So, from 2005 to 2006 about 135,300 children were sexually abused.

Who would take the word of a child against a respected adult even though we know that in up to 93 percent of the time, the child knows his abuser and as many as 47 percent of the perpetrators are family members.

Who would take the word of a child even though in the vast majority of cases the only witness to child sex abuse is the child?

The ugly truth about child sexual abuse is that we really don’t want to hear about it. And far too much of it happens after an initial complaint about a perpetrator has been made and it’s not investigated thoroughly.

Take the tragic sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, and just imagine how things could have been different if there had been real listening and forceful action early on. There were 10,667 complaints of sexual abuse against 4,392 priests and deacons between 1950 and 2002 and yet no serious or thorough investigation took place. And so the abuse was allowed to continue. Until the Globe’s Pulitzer Prize winning series compelled self-examination and change. That scandal has so far cost the Catholic Church more than $2.3 billion in costs and settlements.

The first child to make a complaint in the Sandusky case came forward 14 years ago. But who was going to believe a kid over Jerry Sandusky? So the complaint was not thoroughly investigated and, tragically, the abuse continued.

And so a jury heard a full weeks worth of gut-wrenching stories about all of the awful things that a seemingly decent man did to so many vulnerable children in all those intervening years.

Reporter Diane Dimond was in the courtroom covering the trial for The Daily Beast. She provided some of the most well-written coverage you will find. I first came to admire Diane’s work way back in 1993 when she broke the story of the sexual molestation charges against Michael Jackson.

Back in 1993, most people simply didn’t want to believe the awful things a kid had to say about what Jackson did behind closed doors. After all, Michael Jackson was a lavishly talented and beloved public figure. But Dimond, and a few others, listened carefully and pursued leads and looked at the evidence. And the awful truth began to come out. The boy in that case would eventually accept a settlement from Jackson that was widely reported to be in the range of $20 million.

I asked her for her thoughts on the bigger picture, the Sandusky case, the scandal in the church, and the Jackson matter. Here is part of what she sent me in an e-mail:

“Pedophiles are really the very person you think they could never be. They are the most charming, personable, charitable, and kid-friendly people you would ever want to meet. They pay their taxes, they go to church, they cloak themselves in acts of charity and they say they just want to help you raise your child by being a positive influence in their lives … Too often detectives believe the perpetrator’s version of events and they are freed to violate again.”

We know that this is true about pedophiles. And yet, nearly every day, in family courts across the country, people who should know better choose not to thoroughly investigate charges of child sexual abuse — because the allegations come from a kid and they are lodged against someone who is “respectable.” The charges aren’t investigated, and the child continues to have contact with someone who is hurting them. Touching them. Raping them. It’s what some experts call the process of “growing your own victims.”

Watch this video and read the account of Damon, a young man who pleaded with a family court judge when he was a child not to force him to go on visits to the father who was sexually abusing him. But the judge wouldn’t listen to him. After all, Damon was just a kid. And so Damon kept going on those visits. And kept getting raped. For years.

Or read the accounts of these courageous kids who have now “aged out” of court supervision and tell similar stories about not being believed by the family court and of being sentenced to a life of abuse.

Courageous victims like the ones in the Sandusky trial deserve our collective thanks and our respect for stepping forward and telling us the truth, even though it’s too late for them. They have the courage to try to stop others from being abused.

If enough of them come forward and enough of us start to listen, maybe one day one day when the question is asked — who would believe a kid? — the answer will be different.

  • Lynn Murphy

    Why won’t it change? Because we won’t. If most kids know their abusers then so do we. But don’t we believe that anyone we know would ever do something like that to a child. So it’s lot easier to start telling ourselves our child must be wrong. And then do what we think is best for everyone.

  • http://none Phyllis Stafford

    It is about time someone covered the every day life of an abused child in the faimly court system which has become OUT of controll.
    Regulate Lawyers
    stop child abuse!

  • Connie Valentine

    Thank you, Barry Nolan, for this thoughtful and heartfelt commentary on the conviction of Jerry Sandusky and the plight of children like Damon who are caught in the web of the pedophile friendly San Diego family court.

    • Robert

      While there are a lot of kids out there who need to be protected from abusive fathers, it seems that in the case of Damon, it is the mother who is the abusive parent:

      Psychologically abusive mothers, such as Connie Valentine and Cindy Dumas, are, sadly, also not an uncommon situation under which children suffer. The SD courts recognized this and acted appropriately to protect the children.

      • Barry Nolan

        Dear Robert,
        Anyone who wonders how it can be that intelligent people who should know better – become deaf to the cries of children who are being harmed, raped, abused, need only read your comment. As clear an example a anyone may need – of how the cries of children go unheard – their pleas go unanswered and the cruelty of their abusers goes unchecked.

        You are how “Sanduskys” can happen.

        Barry Nolan

        • Robert

          On the contrary, while I recognize that fathers can and sometimes do abuse their children, and allegations absolutely should be fully investigated and vetted, it appears that you do not acknowledge that mothers can and sometimes do bring false claims of abuse (there’s lots of research on this topic) and be psychologically abusive to their children. In both cases the children are the victims.

          You are how the “Dumas'” and “Valentine’s” can happen.

          • Barry

            Dear Robert,
            You are factually – demonstrably wrong. Studies published in peer reviewed professional journals show that the rates of intentionally false and/or malicious accusations of rape are very low.

            The most recent British study
            determines that only three per cent of rapes reported to the police were either ‘possible’ or ‘probable’ false allegations

            Kelly, L,, J. Lovett, and L. Regan. (2005). A Gap or a Chasm? Attrition in reported rape cases, Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit, London Metropolitan University, Home Office Research, Development and Statistics Directorate, London.

            There is also a large scale Canadian study showing that if a false allegation is leveled – it is most likely to be leveled by the male.

            You herein dismiss the eye witness testimony of a victim – a young man – who has maintained the same claim over the course of more than a decade – because it does not fit with your “Father’s Rights” ideology – and that is just how “Sanduskys” happen.

          • Robert

            I’m not speaking one way or another to the percentage of children who report child abuse who are truly abused versus who are being influenced by a vindictive or disturbed parent to make false allegations. The fact is that false allegations do occur, especially in custody disputes. You seem to have selected a case that confirms this. Did you bother to read the appellate court’s decision? Let me summarize a few points. This case has been extensively vetted over the past 8 years including 4 judges and 18 mental health professionals. “The court found no credible evidence of physical or mental abuse of Damon by Father. This finding was corroborated by 18 mental heal professionals, psychological evaluations, witness interviews, the court’s interview with Damon, Damon’s counsel, Child Protective Services, and the Chadwick Center..” After four years of abduction and isolation with his mother is it any surprise that he may be parroting his mother’s allegations?

            There are so many other clear cut cases of child abuse out there Mr. Nolan why did you pick this one? Because Valentine, Russell and Dumas fed you the link? Next time you should do your research to find a case that supports your thesis rather than provide an opposing view to it.

          • jen g

            You are a pedophile apologist.

          • LaVonne Dumas

            To Robert – who are you? what is your last name? To what organization do you belong?

            For those of you who doubt the words of Cindy Dumas and Damon, I, as her mother, witnessed enough behavioral evidence to convince me of child abuse. When they lived in Scripps Ranch, and shared visitation, I witnessed the crying and reluctance of the children to spend time with their father. I also heard calls made from their cell phone begging their mother to come pick them up. One night while I was there, Damon and his brother, Ryan, had run away from their father’s house in the dark and their Mom had to pick them up.

            Another indication of child abuse could have been that many times I rode in the back seat of the car next to the car seat with all three boys. Damon constantly fondled his private parts and I would constantly tell him to stop that. He fell asleep many times with his hand inside his underwear. Never once did I witness Evan or Ryan behaving in that manor. This behavior was before the abuse was even suspected, and his Mom would tell me “Oh, it’s just a boy thing!”

            For all this is worth, and in spite of Family Court, I have now witnessed the extreme desire of Damon, at the age of 16, to live with his loving and protective mother, attend Poway High School, and not be sent away to a dangerous camp. Why can’t we give this boy a chance at his freedom to decide the rest of his life!!

          • jen g


      • jen g


  • Cindy Dumas

    Thank you for bringing to light the fact that family court officials are choosing to not investigate sexual abuse cases thoroughly and that the statistics show it is time we start believing the children. I’m sure Damon will be happy to hear that at least the public is more likely to believe him now.

  • Lorraine

    My child is learning to use her voice, I pray that other courageous children come forward like Damon.

  • Eileen King

    Barry is so right: who really wants to believe kids, especially when the abuser is so very mice…and helpful…and means so well.

    The other side of not believing is vigorous and unrelenting false counter-allegation of abuse: I didn’t abuse that child, you are just trying to alienate him/her from me!

    I used to think that the evidence needed to be strong – then they would believe the child. But now I know that, in some cases, no amount of evidence can convince people determined not to believe. We have see children with hymenal tears, ruptured rectums, STD’s and other strong evidence of sexual abuse be told that they are either making it up or they are being influence by someone to say false things.

    Just a note: a gentleman often posts negative things about my organization, Justice for Children and claims that we mishandled his child’s case. We dug up the old files and checked – and yes, there were very compelling reasons to believe that child. So please keep this in mind when you read the attacks.

    • Eileen King

      Apologies for the typos!

      I had just come back home after our evening of showing Barry Nolan and Garland Waller’s Award-Winning Documentary “No Way Out But One” to a very receptive and appreciative audience in Washington, D.C. at the law firm of O’Melveny & Myers.

      One of the things NWOBO makes clear is that everyone knew that this mother was a victim of domestic violence and that the children were being injured. But the various “systems” still decided to reward their abuser with custody.

      There is another level of disbelief: people disbelieve / doubt that there can be such obvious and blatant “system failure” or that judges, if confronts with strong evidence, would decide not to protect children. This 2nd level of disbelief contributes to the invisibility of these cases.

      Congratulations, Barry and Garland, for
      creating such a powerful film that we can use to educate our citizenry!

    • Lynn Murphy

      Someone who manipulates a child into not reportering sexual abuse, is probably going to try the same technique with adults who learn of the abuse. If bullying or threats or personal attacks or whining work, why change? Sandusky apparently responded with whining and threats. His response was an indicator. Child molesters make it easy for us to do what we think is best for them instead of doing the right thing.

  • Cindy Dumas

    Robert, you seem so sure that I brainwashed Damon into reporting abuse, but you don’t know Damon or me and you are relying on findings from a corrupt and biased court. In fact NOT ONE professional said there was no credible evidence of abuse. You know who said that? Judge Alksne who was trying to cover for her colleague Judge Smyth who caused Damon to be raped for years before we finally had to go into hiding to protect him. And the Appellate court simply regurgitated her findings under the broad discretionary standard without any factual sufficiency review. Why? Because then they would have to go against their rich colleague who does them the favor of sitting in for them when they want to play golf. Check out my response to their decision:

    • Carolyn

      So 18 professionals supported that Damon was raped repeatedly and 5 judges (including appellate judges) ignored their findings? Wouldn’t there be plenty of evidence especially medical, e.g., anal tearing, hemorrhaging? I don’t know a lot about the legal system but I know that declarations and petitions are not evidence, just opinion. You might get more public support if you posted the professional evaluations and reports (CPS, psychologists, Chadwick center) on the website so the public could see independent evidence of what you’re saying. What about Damon’s brothers? They went into hiding with Damon. Where are they now? They must be adults by now. Why aren’t they speaking out against their father?

      • jen g

        Yeah, the entire system ignores sexual abuse. Yes!!!!
        If not, 58k children annually would see the justice they seek.

  • Eileen

    – The truth is, research shows that false allegations of child sexual abuse by children are rare. In one study, only 1% of the total cases were children judged to have advanced a fictitious allegation. Other studies show rates as low as 2%. Research with children with proven sexual abuse has shown that children tend to minimize and deny abuse and not exaggerate or over-report such incidents.

    Social denial and the refusal to believe the children are what allow people like Sandusky to continue abusing children for years.

    • Jessica M

      I don’t think anyone is arguing that the incidence of false allegations is high, just that it happens. This study found that in contentious custody cases, which it seems was definitely the case with Damon’s parents, 33% of sexual abuse allegations were found to be false [and 17% “no determination”]:
      Nancy Thoennes & Patricia G. Tjaden, “The Extent, Nature, and Validity of Sexual Abuse Allegations in Custody/Divorce Disputes,” 14 Child Abuse & Neglect 151 (1990).

  • Eileen

    In the study “The Extent, Nature, and Validity of Sexual Abuse Allegations in Custody/Divorce Disputes,” the abstract states: A study of over 9,000 custody/visitation dispute cases found that sexual abuse allegations occurred in 2 percent of contested cases. Such cases involve a variety of accused and accusing parties and are no less likely to be “unfounded” than other sexual abuse reports.

    Other studies have found much lower percentages of false allegations. An Australian study (Brown et al., 1997) found the overall rate of false allegations during divorce to be about 9%, similar to the rate of false allegations at any other time. Schuman (2000) reviewed research that found a range of 1-5% for rates of deliberately false allegations, and 14-21% for mistaken allegations.

    Nicholas Bala and John Schuman, two Queen’s University law professors, reviewed Canadian judges’ written decisions where allegations of either physical or sexual abuse were raised in the context of parental separation. Of female-initiated allegations, just 1.3% were deemed intentionally false by civil courts, compared with 21% when the man in the failed relationship brought similar allegations.

    (Information from Dallam. S. J., & Silberg, J. L. (Jan/Feb 2006). Myths that place children at risk during custody disputes. Sexual Assault Report, 9(3), 33-47.)

    In other words, sexual abuse allegations in divorce cases are rare. When they occur, the overwhelming percentage of these abuse allegations are true.

  • malinda sherwyn

    This is a great article and sums up a huge problem that out weighs and overwhelms the Sandusky/Catholic pedophile scandals per the stats Mr. Nolan quotes above. Thank you for exposing the pain of this boy Damon. There are thousands like him suffering and ignored by those in power, mandated to protect them.

  • Jonea

    Thank you for this article, Barry!

    I want to say to those who feel they need to defend and protect fathers and fathers’ rights-this is not about good, caring fathers! This is about pedophiles and child abusers!

    Many of us have been forced to go into hiding and have been jailed for protecting our children! If you think a mother would simply ruin her/her child’s life and risk going to prison purely out of revenge, think again! No mother wants this for her child or herself! Please think before you make a statement you know nothing about.

    What’s happening to many of our children in family court is no different than what has happened to victims of the Catholic church and Sandusky/Penn State!

  • jen g

    I would like to know who will believe a kid because my child is being raped daily curteousy of Family Court. Will my little boy become the next dv homicide, or will anyone listening to a child begging for protection?