Penn State is the Tip of the Iceberg

I have covered stories as a reporter where some pretty horrible things have happened to people, from murder and mayhem, to bombings and kidnappings. But I don’t think I could have brought myself to even listen to some of the stories I heard a while back about what some predators do to children and infants for the sake of entertainment, unless the stories had been told to me by a good and decent friend. Just hearing them made my skin crawl. And the sorry tales now coming out of Penn State bring it all back to mind with a fresh sense of outrage and revulsion. And you should know about this, too, because the tragedy at Penn State is just the tip of the iceberg.

My friend with the awful stories is David Keith — you may feel like you know him, too, from his work in movies. He first shot to fame was as Richard Gere’s hapless friend in “An Officer and a Gentleman.” He has been in a ton of movies since then, but now spends much of his time as a spokesperson for the National Association to Protect the Children.

PROTECT works with some high-tech wizards and law enforcement agencies to go after those who abuse children and traffic in online child pornography. As the good folks at PROTECT put it:

Child pornography images are crime scene photos, and the thriving black market for them can only be supplied one way: through the rape and torture of more children.

Among their most important victories, PROTECT has managed to close the “incest loophole” in some states. You may find it hard to believe, as I did, but the law in many states gives “special immunity to sex offenders who grow their own victims.” Incest loopholes can provide that:

An uncle who raped his niece was guilty of a misdemeanor, punishable by 45 days of community service. Or one that said a father who sexually assaulted his own child had committed a minor felony, punishable by probation.

Because of such laws, parents who raped and sodomized their own children could avoid decades in prison, and instead, be paroled back into the very homes that had served as the crime scene. And their children and spouses could be required to attend “reunification therapy” sessions. Such loopholes have been closed in North Carolina and California and New York. But they still exist all over the country.

What got to me the most about my friends harrowing account of his work with PROTECT, is that right now, there are people out there who will commit unspeakable atrocities upon children, for a fee, online, live. It is essentially child sex abuse On-Demand. And to make this even more horrible, the perpetrators committing these crimes are the people who have custody, care, or control of the children.

Thanks to the work of PROTECT, children are now being rescued, sometimes even in the midst of an online act of molestation in their own home. Despite our nightmarish stereotype of some creepy looking Charles Manson-like stranger, the data clearly shows that the most dangerous predators out there are not strangers. They are in the house with the child:

• More than 90 percent of juvenile sexual abuse victims know their perpetrator in some way.

• Most (70 percent) of the sexual assaults reported to law enforcement occurred in the residence of the victim.

• One of every seven victims reported to law enforcement agencies were under age 6.

Assaults against the youngest victims were the least likely of juvenile victimizations to result in arrest

The crimes are so awful, it is traumatizing not just to the victims, but to the jurors who try these cases, too.

In a 2009 Nebraska case, the U.S. District Court judge extended jury service time so that any juror who had served during a particularly horrid child pornography case could receive counseling, saying “… the material they are exposed to in such cases is fundamentally known to be traumatic.”

The work of putting an end to it is not easy. I give Keith and the folks at PROTECT enormous credit. Dealing with this kind of issue every day is not for the faint of heart. The “Ick” factor is just overwhelming for many people. It is one of the reasons that the mainstream media fails to deal with it as they should.

But just contemplate for a moment the fact that the alleged perpetrator in the Penn State scandal, Jerry Sandusky, came close to taking over one of the most storied and high-profile jobs in all of college sports. If all the charges are true, think of the damage that could have caused to lives and institutions. And it would have happened, in large measure, because people were silent. They didn’t want to talk about it. It was just too icky.

But we’ve started a conversation now. It won’t be easy, but we should keep it going. Because silence on issues of child sex abuse is so harmful, it’s a crime.