By Betsy Lewis, Social Media Contractor for the Children’s Advocacy Center of Jackson County
I post about the topic of child abuse to the CAC’s social media platforms. I have done this for a few years now, and many days it seems like I am posting some version of the same story over and over again. And many days, I can’t help but ask:
Why is it so difficult???
Why is it so difficult to recognize and act on child abuse when it is happening? Why do families and communities turn a blind eye? Why do victims stay silent? Why are the perpetrators protected?
Why can’t we see child abuse for the simple horrific crime that it is, immediately stop it and get justice for the victims?
Recently I read the book, Undaunted: Breaking My Silence to Overcome the Trauma of Child Abuse, by Matthew Sandusky (Matt). It shed some light on the murky shadowy world of child abuse from a victim’s point of view.
You may remember Matt’s adoptive father, Jerry Sandusky, a celebrated Penn State football coach and “pillar of the community”, who sexually abused boys for two decades – using his nonprofit, Second Mile, to find and groom his victims. Matt was one of his Second Mile victims, beginning when Matt was a pre-pubescent boy. Jerry Sandusky and his wife eventually adopted Matt.
By the time Jerry Sandusky came to trial for these crimes, Matt was an adult – married and a father. Initially, Matt denied that he had ever experienced abuse by Jerry Sandusky. By the end of the trial, he came forward with the truth — he had been abused for many years. He was publicly condemned for changing his story. Eventually, Jerry Sandusky was convicted and received a life sentence for serially abusing 10 boys.
In his book, Matt Sandusky describes his confusing and conflicting emotions as a child, and the hurdles to disclosing the abuse that he faced as a child and as an adult:
1. He was an unprotected, powerless and vulnerable child; up against an adult who was an expert and practiced groomer/manipulator.
2. As a child, he had little knowledge of sex, sexual behavior or criminal behavior. Cultural taboos around sexual matters and bodies added to his confusion.
3. He became deeply attached to Jerry Sandusky and his family, who for 90% of the time treated him better than any of the other neglectful and abusive adults in his life. Jerry’s wife and family became his family.
4. As time went on, he began bargaining with himself. He told himself that the abuse was a small price to pay for an otherwise great life.
5. Jerry Sandusky was a respected and powerful “pillar of the community”. Who would believe him over Jerry – especially as a child and even as an adult?
6. He felt guilt, complicity, self-blame, shame and embarrassment. He felt “dirty”. Why expose that publicly?
7. He questioned his own sexuality. Another – why expose that publicly?
8. As an adult, he didn’t want to “mess up” his life by disclosing. He didn’t want to risk dragging his wife and kids into the drama of the public eye, particularly where his credibility would be attacked. He knew that the fallout to the whole extended family would be (and was) grave.
9. As an adult, he knew what he was up against and felt powerless. He knew that Penn State and the powers that be would ruthlessly protect themselves and the school’s image.
Challenges like these are insurmountable for a child. In fact, nondisclosure is the norm for children. Ultimately, however, Matt was inspired by another Sandusky victim’s testimony, to come forward with the truth. Many accused him of lying or doing it for “the money.”
Justice wants simple and clear. Justice wants a wide direct and unimpeded path to a simple conclusion. In justice’s ideal world, a child screams, runs from a perpetrator and tells an adult immediately. Justice wants this perpetrator to be a degenerate stranger — not a relative, friend or beloved community member.
But that is not the way it works. As Matt’s story makes clear, child sexual abuse is messy, ugly and tangled. Acknowledging it, disclosing it and healing from it can be a convoluted journey that can take a victim a lifetime – if it happens at all.
The only thing that is straightforward, direct and unimpeded about child abuse is the fact that children are often wounded for life.
For this very reason (and like Matt Sandusky), we must stay undaunted. It is worth every bit of our effort to continue to shed a light on child abuse in hope of one day clearing away the ignorance, secrets, whispers, shame and denial that keep so many children and adults hurting and hostage.