This has been a week in which it was impossible to escape the topic of child sexual abuse. Jerry Sandusky's history of abusing boys and young men in Pennsylvania became public, and with it questions proliferated about who knew what, when it had happened, and what had (or had not) been done in response.
As the week unfurled and the details of the sexual abuse were circulated more widely, in more detail, I came to believe that no one should express a social media opinion without reading the grand jury report. I also want to commend Dan Rockwell and the readers of Dan's "Leadership Freak" blog for one of the most civil, honest, broadly opined, and candid conversations about the issue that I have read. Click here for the post.
[As a bit of an aside, I agree with Stop It Now! that "the most effective prevention takes place before there’s a child victim to heal or an offender to punish."]
Since this is a time in our lives when an accused offender exists and victims who were children at the time must be healed, I have a personal account to share:
When I was 13, I was very, very involved with a masonic organization for girls. I loved everything about the organization - the friends, the ritual, the ability to wear formal gowns regularly, the idea that this affiliation would be a foundation of the adult I would become.
Our adult leader's husband was frequently in our midst. We did many activities (such as designing the newsletter) at their home. We called our adult leader "Mom" and her first name and her husband "Uncle" and his first name. The whole thing felt like family. Trust was implicit; we were all committed to the organization and its ideals.
One of the offices I held was the position that remained outside of the room where the meeting was held. Largely ceremonial, the idea was that this individual protected the members' proceedings from being infringed upon by the outside world. I recall a night when I was doing my job, when I was wearing a green form-fitting dress (probably made out of Quiana - this was the late seventies after all!) that made me feel so great about myself.
"Uncle" stayed outside with me. It was me and him - a situation that had likely occurred many times before; I didn't think anything of it. Until he put his hands around my waist and his tongue in my mouth.
He and I were separated by one plywood door from a room full of people, including his wife. Why I didn't open the door and stop things I don't know. I was in shock. Somehow I stumbled through the rest of the meeting once the time came for me to return to the room. When I got home that night I told my parents, "'Uncle' kissed me." The conversation rapidly went from "was it a peck on the cheek?" to the facts of the situation. I remember sitting in the back of our car, at "Uncle's" house, listening to my dad's conversation with him. It's surprising they were both alive afterward.
I don't know the specifics of what happened after that with the governing board of the organization. I know that "Uncle" was no longer at meetings and I certainly wasn't ever at his house again. Our family moved away later that year. I know that several years ago he passed away. I suppose this would be a better blog factually if I knew some of the post-incident details, but I really don't want to go there with my parents again.
One thought that haunts me after all these years is: how many other girls were there who were subjected to this behavior? I can't have been the only one. What happened after he was forced to stop coming to our meetings? Did he find some other outlet in order to feed his illness?
Lastly, if I had not had adults to tell who believed me, recovery would have been immeasurably harder. A lot of the young men I read about in the grand jury report came from homes where there was instability. Maybe that's why they were targeted. In my case, I had loving parents to talk to, but an adult who can help a kid when they are being victimized may be someone other than a parent. Be present for the young people in your life. Be aware of the signs of sexual abuse (click this link for information). I realize this advice may seem contradictory -- the abuse by Sandusky happened when he was a trusted adult -- but organizations who are proactive have ways in which adults and children can interact safely (like always having more than one adult present). If there is a child in your life who needs to safely disclose inappropriate behavior by another adult in their life, take them seriously. Facilitate the appropriate interventions so that, if abuse is happening, it is stopped. For that child and any children in the abuser's path.
Be that adult.