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So, what is to be done?

Jan 29, 2018

2018 01 29_gymnastics.jpgThe story of the trial of sexual predator, Larry Nassar, team doctor for the USA women’s gymnastics team has gained prominent media attention as it absolutely should. Nassar’s trial was stunning as 156 women, abused as girls, were allowed to testify to Nassar’s repeated and insidious sexual abuse that no amount of justly deserved punishment of this abhorrent abuser will diminish.

And make no mistake. The 156 brave survivors who came forward are representative of many more victims. Over 200 women have now alleged abuse by Larry Nassar and I promise you, there are many many more. How many young aspiring athlete girls did Nassar have unfettered access to in his 20-year position of trust and privilege? It seems very clear that Nassar’s abuse, under the guise of medical care, went completely unchecked by those in authority for the majority, if not all, of those two decades leaving wide the door to his rampant and repeated abuse. And as we have learned, to no surprise, Nassar’s victims were not limited to female gymnasts or even athletes. It’s fair to say we will never know exactly how many women are living life every day trying to outpace the shame and pain of Nassar’s cruel acts.

As I read through the news articles and especially the accounts of the women abused by Nassar, I am sickened to find the all too familiar stories. So many girls spoke up about the abuse and were disbelieved, silenced or shamed and sent back to be treated by the esteemed Dr. Nassar. And, most heinous of all were stories of those in authority who KNEW of the abuse and repeatedly turned a blind eye. I am also certain that over the course of those 20 years, there were scores of adults who saw a suggestive behavior, overheard something suspicious or just plain had a queasy gut sense about Nassar and said or did NOTHING.

Only the names and numbers are different. Less than a decade ago our attention was riveted to the revelation of Jerry Sandusky’s serial abuse of boys in his care. For over 30 years victims of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church have come forward. And they’re still coming forward. It is not an exaggeration to say that we literally have no way of tallying the numbers of victims of clergy abuse just in the U.S., not to mention worldwide. And over 2000 cases of sexual abuse were reported within the Boy Scout organization, again, likely with greater numbers to huge to calculate. And these are just the most prominent cases. These reports are representative only of the survivors who gathered the courage to speak up. We know that, sadly, there are countless organizations that have and continue to cover up known sexual abuse of children.

So just exactly how long will it take for us to wake up and change our mental image of the sexual abuse of children? Once and for all, sexual predators are not creepy men who snatch children off the swing set in your local park (although it occasionally does happen less than 10% of the time). Serial pedophiles look exactly like an assistant coach, a team doctor, or a man with a clerical collar. And possibly more difficult to stomach, they look like a relative, family friend, or neighbor. According to one investigator in the Nassar case, “no one who knew Dr. Nassar believed he could be capable of such behavior.” (NY Times, Sunday, Jan. 28, 2018). Of course not!

Pedophiles are clever and cunning, often grooming parents or other adults right along with a child in order to gain trust and unrestricted access to the child. Once an adult’s (or child’s) trust is gained, their guard is down and niggling questions or a sense of discomfort is quickly whisked away. We have tens of thousands of adult survivors who will sadly attest to the effectiveness of this nefarious process.

So, what is to be done? Am I suggesting that parents sequester their children away to diminish the possibility of being victimized by an abuser? Certainly not. In fact, overcompensating out of fear does not help children become strong and confident, deterrents to abusers.

What I am suggesting is that we open our eyes to the reality that keeps showing up in our newsfeed, our morning paper and is and has been right in front of us – for decades! That, while the overwhelming majority of adults who interact with children have good and honest intentions, there are also those dangerous few who see children as a means to satisfy their twisted sexual urges. And those few do not carry a sign.

What I am suggesting is that, instead of blindly trusting those adults, we begin to trust our gut sense.  There really is science behind what we call our gut feeling and it is absolutely trustworthy. When we override our sense of what is trustworthy, we open ourselves and those we are entrusted to care for to harm. I am certain that in all of the cases mentioned above, there were those who saw, heard, or felt that something was amiss and did what we are all inclined to do, override our own senses to not create discomfort for ourselves and especially others.

And most of all what I am suggesting is that we listen, pay attention, and BELIEVE children. Research shows that pedophiles are reported at least seven times on average before adults take the allegations seriously. In the Nassar case alone, it has been reported that at least 14 coaches, trainers, psychologists or colleagues had been told of his abuse. This breaks my heart. What more is there for a child who is being abused to do? All the education of children about abuse is useless unless adults in positions of responsibility listen and believe!

We can do better. We must do better. The evidence is in and from here on out we are either complicit or we open our eyes, take responsibility and begin to truly keep children safe. Each of us can be a force for change and we will measure our success as the horrific stories of children being sexually abused decline and children are believed and are truly safe.

- Janice Palm, MA, LMHC, Executive Director

 



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