|Language As a Minefield: for Now, in the Fine Case, the Need for Restraint
November 23, 2011
Charlie Bailey suggests we seek a rational place amid a storm of raw emotion. Last Thursday, ESPN did a national report on a former Syracuse University men's basketball ball boy, Bobby Davis, who says he was sexually abused as a child by SU assistant coach Bernie Fine. The network reported that Davis' stepbrother, Mike Lang, is making similar allegations against Fine, who says he is innocent.
All Bailey asks — until investigators have a chance to do their jobs — is for adults in the community to show basic "reserve."
"The danger of what's being said is that victims in other cases won't come forward when they hear how these (accusers) are being treated," said Bailey, coordinator of the Central New York Chapter of SNAP, or Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
Bailey, 60, understands the difficulty implicit in that statement. He knows that people who care about Fine want to rush to his aid, no holds barred. Yet Bailey asks all of us to step back and think. It is natural to offer a strong defense of a friend. It is another thing, long before investigators reach any conclusions, to claim Fine's accusers are liars and cheats — the same words that many victims of childhood abuse fear will be used against them if they tell the truth.
The point is echoed by Ellen Ford, clinical director at Vera House, an Onondaga County agency that serves victims of sexual and domestic violence.
"I don't think there's anyone who wants anyone wrongly accused or wrongly convicted," Ford said. "But I think, before we use words that in essence convict the (alleged) victims, we have to remember there are people out there living with the results of abuse every day, and who – because of this language – might choose against coming forward out of fear of not being believed."
The tone was set in the hours after ESPN first reported the accusations by Davis. Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim, reacting emotionally to accusations against his longtime assistant, described Davis and Lang as liars who had concocted the story simply "to get money." Within a day, while never retracting those statements, Boeheim settled into a quieter course of saying he had every reason for remaining loyal to his old friend.
Still, the language remains vitriolic on the Internet and talk radio. The sheer fury troubles staff and clients at Vera House, where Ford co-facilitates a group for male survivors of sexual abuse. Members of that group, she said, have responded with dismay to the contempt pouring down on Lang and Davis.
"My concern, really, is for all the survivors of sexual abuse that I've met and known of in my work who have not been believed because the pressure is on them not to tell, not to upset their families, not to ruin someone else's life," Ford said. Those survivors, she said, feel the sting of every word when members of the community project the worst motives onto Lang and Davis.
Bailey carefully separates his own experience from what's playing out at SU. Still, he points to his story as an example of how childhood victims remain vulnerable, years later, to community scorn. As a child, Bailey was abused by a Roman Catholic priest. Decades later, when Bailey finally spoke out about his ordeal, he received a letter of apology for "the despicable activities of one of our priests" from James Moynihan, then-bishop of the Diocese of Syracuse.
For Bailey, going public meant confronting a lack of self-worth and an abundance of self-blame. It meant dealing with shame at being the repeated victim of unwanted sex. Worst, he braced himself for being called a liar.
While he emphasizes that he is not speaking to the guilt or innocence of Bernie Fine, he offers this warning: In instances of abuse that have no connection to the furor at SU, victims on the brink of speaking out might retreat after seeing the way Davis and Lang are being treated.
Bailey appreciates how the investigation involving Fine is at an early stage, and he believes in the notion of innocent until proven guilty. He also understands, better than most of us, the lasting nature of what it means to be accused – or victimized – by child abuse. What concerns Bailey is how bitter words used thoughtlessly at this point in the process might splash onto victims in other situations.
Like Ford, Bailey realizes that many adult survivors of childhood abuse are following every nuance of the accusations and counter-accusations. They cannot help but to take it personally when the accusers are reviled as con artists and liars, interested only in money. Maybe it seems unfair to expect defenders of Fine to show any restraint, especially when they believe Fine is a victim, but to Bailey there is more at stake than even this one case.
In the end, all he wants is for the truth to be made clear. Until then, heedless words may cause pain in the wrong targets.
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