Shattering the Silence

Silence is common in child sexual abuse cases.

As police investigate allegations of child molestation by coaches at Penn State and Syracuse, nagging questions linger about signs that may have been missed — or ignored

"It's not that it's so invisible. It's that it remains a silent crime. People worry if they say anything they could ruin someone's life," said Maia Christopher, executive director of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers in Beaverton, Ore. "Now everyone is asking what did you see and who did what (at Penn State). We know that people did see things and did not respond in a way that could help."

"We don't like to think that these things go on and are done to people we know and love," Donovan Rice said. "I think people recognize it more than we are willing to admit. We're not honest with ourselves about how many times we have felt uncomfortable about what another adult is doing. It's time we get honest with ourselves."

Reaching out to shatter the silence:

 The Penn State sex abuse scandal has drawn important national attention, but victims and advocates are working to shine light on the local reality of child abuse.
 Zoie Brown is one such victim, and she launched her website, Victims Get Vocal, last month to encourage others to share their stories and direct them to the help they need.
Zoie hopes she can help others find the support they need before it is too late, she said. She pointed out that many who are abused go down the same avenue of self medication, and some even turn to suicide. She was inspired to launch the site by the story of victim Ashley Billasano, a Texas teen who committed suicide in November.

“If you find that good support system and you can be heard, you can get help,” Zoie Brown said. Through her website and Facebook page, she says she receives about three messages a day. She responds to each of them and encourages them to report their case and seek therapy, which she said is the only real way to handle the trauma.

“It doesn’t go away,” she said, “until you deal with it.”

Penn State culture explained away Sandusky. (Associated Press)

At Penn State, a school whose sports programs vow "success with honor," the circle of knowledge about assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was kept very limited. And those in the know explained the allegations away — or looked away.

The warning signs were there for more than a decade, disturbing indicators that Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was breaching boundaries with young boys - or maybe worse.

Year after year, Penn State missed opportunity after opportunity to stop Sandusky. Secrecy ruled, and reaction to complaints of improper sexual behavior was to remain silent, minimize or explain away - all part of a deep-rooted reflex to protect the sacred football program.

The fact that so few say they knew is all anyone needs to know about the insular culture that surrounds Penn State - a remote and isolated community in a central Pennsylvania valley, a university cloaked in so much secrecy, in large part, because it is exempt from the state's open records law, and a football program that has prided itself on handling its indiscretions internally and quietly, without outside interference.

Institutions such as churches and schools that make up the moral fabric of our society that are charged with the safety and well-being of children must lead the way in shattering the silence of child sexual abuse. Until they do, the status quo of silence will rule the day and kids will be in danger, while the predators these institutions protect lurk freely among them.  There are churches that I know of personally that have remained quiet and  looked the other way about a confessed child molester, Prestonwood Baptist Church and Morrison Heights Baptist Church. When will they and others understand what's at stake and shatter the silence?


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