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.