Scars of Abuse Run Deep

By Kim Strong
York Daily Record [York PA]
September 21, 2003

(Letters to the Editor)

I can’t remember the name of the defendant or the two witnesses whose testimony put him in jail, but I can remember vividly what they looked like in a courtroom 18 years ago, especially the two little boys whose faces turned up toward the microphone as they spoke on the stand.

The boys were 5 and 6, unrelated to one another, living in a small town in Snyder County, Pa. The boy who raped them was their babysitter, a 19-year-old. The rape trial for the teenager was the first court case I covered as a reporter. I would cover more rape trials, a minister who burned down his house for the insurance, the woman who killed her boyfriend in self-defense after years of abuse, and many more heinous crimes. None had the impact on me that the first had — because of those two little boys.

The 5-year-old had come forward first, after telling his mother what was happening with the baby sitter. Then, after the news of the teenager’s arrest hit their small town, the 6-year-old admitted being raped as well. By the time the 6-year-old sat on the stand, he had begun to show signs of his sexual victimization. He had begun exposing himself to other children.

Emotional scars hide so easily behind the effervescence of adolescence. The 6-year-old’s family had chided him for exposing himself on the playground, but before they knew he had been molested, they dismissed the behavior as a childish prank. Even by the time of the trial, less than a year after the rapes, his family had failed to take him to a counselor.

A friend told me recently of a convicted sexual predator killed by another man. My friend’s take on the story was that the killer had a son who had been sexually abused. It was just the guess of a college-educated man who hadn’t come close to a sexual assault victim in his lifetime. My mind flashed directly to the little boys in 1986, sitting up on that stand. I believed the killer had been a sexual assault victim.

It can be a cycle.

Just as physically abusive parents are sometimes the children of physically abusive parents, sexual predators are sometimes victims themselves. Most victims don’t grow up to be killers or rapists. Most, in fact, just remain tortured by what they experienced, feeling guilt, feeling trauma — even years after the abuse has ended.

The American Psychological Association reports that boys who are victims of sexual abuse are at least four times more likely than other boys to be violent and 25 times more likely to commit rape.

Justice doesn’t solve that problem. It can lock up sexual predators for their crimes, but it doesn’t take the abuse out of the victim. It might offer the victim relief and a feeling of safety, but the pain of what has happened will go on and on.

And many cases of child sexual abuse go unreported, as the hundreds of lawsuits against the Catholic Church show decades after the abuse occurred. The recent $85 million settlement of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston with 552 people who say they were abused by priests is considered a landmark case.

“(Archbishop) Sean O’Malley . . . listened to every person. I truly believe it is going to bring peace to many,” said an attorney for 100 of the plaintiffs.

Hundreds of victims — in Boston alone — should shake us into understanding how widespread this problem is. And peace through a settlement? Money won’t bring peace to those victims. Even the admission of wrongdoing doesn’t bring peace.

All of those people are scarred, helped only if they have found good counselors along the way. An $80,000 check won’t begin to pay for all of the help they will need.

Children who are victims of sexual abuse must have counseling. Our schools shouldn’t be carrying the primary load on helping kids overcome these problems, although many do directly or indirectly; the answer may be somewhere in the justice system that seems willing to try to rehabilitate prisoners — why not victims, too? Why not force predators to pay court costs and counseling costs for their victims, and, if they can’t, the state picks up the costs?

After I watched the trial of that 19-year-old boy in 1986, I went home to my apartment and cried, tortured that children could go through something so horrendous. It was my first exposure to abuse. Someone who I loved dearly listened to me cry and told me that I had to develop a thicker skin, that I would see more of this in the years ahead as a newspaper reporter.

He was right. I would see more, but my skin hasn’t gotten any thicker. Every courtroom holds those two little faces for me, turned up to the microphone, telling a horrific story about their baby sitter, unaware that the scars would reside so deep within them that they would always be victims. I know that, wherever they are, two little victimized boys live inside the grown men they have become.

Kim Strong is the editorial page editor and writing coach for the Daily Record. Reach her at 771-2049 or

Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.