Believe Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse

The Morning Call [Pennsylvania]
November 20, 2003

As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I have spent my entire adult life coping with its long-term effects. I'm now proud to say that I no longer live a life of silence where my abuse is concerned. Instead, I've become a staunch victims' advocate, lobbying at the state and federal levels for new, tougher laws that would benefit victims of crime.

Along with legislative efforts, I've also spent much of my time dedicated to public awareness and education of childhood sexual abuse. Of the many important points that we educate about, one is that of what to do when children finally take the crucial step (an extremely difficult step) and disclose that they're being abused.

This is a current topic because of recent news stories about the arrest last month of Benjamin Schragger of Weisenberg Township on charges of sexually assaulting children. Some people have defended him and called into question the reports by his alleged victims. So, what should you do if a child discloses? Believe him or her! Then call law enforcement immediately. Law enforcement investigators are specially trained to deal with child victims, and in most cases will investigate with the help of a child advocacy agency, making the interview process more comfortable for the child and helping to avoid having the child tell the story to multiple people over and over again.

What about children who disclose months or years after they were abused? Why didn't they tell sooner? Actually, if you think about it from a child's perspective, it really does make sense to not tell. Threats by the perpetrators, feelings of guilt and embarrassment, confusion or feelings of responsibility or being blamed for the abuse, not being able to fully comprehend the seriousness of what has just happened, inherent reluctance of a child to challenge adult authority are some of them. And, maybe highest on the list, they fear not being believed by those closest to them.

In my own case, the sexual abuse had continued for at least two years before I had the courage to tell my parents. Even then, the only reason I admitted that my uncles had "touched me there" was because my cousin, who was also being abused, told her mother. My parents believed us, but the rest of the family didn't. As a 6-year-old, I was terrified, hurt and confused, and I didn't understand why my grandparents, aunts and uncles called us liars. It hurt me more than the physical act of abuse did.

The alternative to not believing a child can be catastrophic. By not believing, you are putting that child and others at risk for continuing abuse. One thing that my family's denial helped to do was to allow my uncles to abuse future cousins.

As grotesque as the abuse is, let's not forget about the long-term effects of childhood sexual abuse. I've received hundreds, if not thousands, of phone calls and e-mails from adult survivors, all of whom are still striving to understand what happened to them. Some are teenagers, some are in their 20s, 30s or 40s. Some are even in their 60s and 70s. Some are recovering alcoholics and drug addicts. Some are over-achievers who hold doctorate and master's degrees. Some are activists. Some have since committed suicide. More than 95 percent of them never disclosed their abuse when it was happening as a child.

According to Prevent Child Abuse, sexual abuse cases are usually tried in criminal court, where defense counsel tactics include postponements and cross-examination techniques designed to confuse and discredit children. In practical terms, sexual offenses against children go unreported, unprosecuted, unconvicted; offenders and children go untreated; society goes unprotected.

I hope that any individual choosing to doubt a child's disclosure of sexual abuse would be smart enough to become educated on the warning signs of abuse. Jumping to the wrong conclusion sends a dangerous message to the thousands of children currently in abusive situations who live shrouded in the silence of their abuse.

Survivors of childhood sexual abuse have a lifetime of pain and damage control ahead of them. No child should have to be put in a position to defend their disclosure. Every child has the right to be believed.

Tammy L. Lerner of New Tripoli is a spokesperson for SNAP, Survivors' Network of Those Abused by Priests of Pennsylvania and a member of its Legislative Committee to Prevent Child Abuse.


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