Since the child sex abuse scandal broke at Penn State University in November, victims of sexual abuse -- many of whom had remained silent about their suffering for years -- have been speaking up across the country, seeking counseling, calling hot lines and contacting attorneys.
An unprecedented increase in reports of abuse seems to have been inspired by the fall from grace of the university's revered football coach, Joe Paterno, and the school's president, Graham Spanier.
"If the powerful come down, the powerless really do feel they have a shot," said Marci A. Hamilton, a lawyer from Bucks County, Pa., and author of "Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children."
The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), based in Chicago, reported that in the last six weeks, it had been deluged with e-mails and phone calls from survivors.
"The real enemy in the child safety struggle is 'surely,' " said David Clohessy, SNAP's executive director. "Surely, after all those lawsuits, surely, after all those priests were ousted, no day care center or athletic program or school or church or scouting group would ignore or conceal child sex crimes anymore."
Penn State gave the lie to that assumption, which helped survivors in several ways.
"Whenever high-profile predators in a particular occupation or setting are exposed, especially in rapid succession, some victims abused in the same setting or by the same type of perpetrator come forward out of hope," Clohessy said.
One of the major reasons victims keep their abuse secret is fear, Clohessy said. Fear that they will not be believed. Fear that they will be seen as complicit. Fear that they will be judged harshly.
"While it's extraordinarily hard for any child sex abuse victim to come forward, there's another layer of complexity and shame when it's same-gender abuse," he said.
Since the Penn State scandal broke, disclosure has become easier. The scandal also seems to have tipped public opinion, Hamilton said: "There is this sense that something needs to be done."
During a recent TV appearance with CNN's Anderson Cooper, Hamilton was asked, "So what should we do?"
When she replied, "Get rid of the statute of limitations," she said, "the entire audience started applauding. I was amazed. ... We weren't seeing this kind of tone in the public before Penn State."
Dragging sexual abuse out into the open...
What was little understood years ago was the nature of the compulsion - that abusers were often unable to resist future temptation, especially if they were around kids (which they often were, partly because many pedophiles choose jobs that keep them near their targets).
In the Catholic Church, priests who confessed and said the required prayers were forgiven (forgiveness being, after all, the business the church is in). His superiors might transfer him to another parish without realizing that, penitent though the abuser may have been, they were only providing him with a new source of victims.
Protecting children is everyone's job.Sexual abuse is a real threat to children, and it deserves our attention. And sexual contact with children is a crime, so sweeping it under the rug is a crime, too.