Jerry Sandusky was every single mother’s dream, or so it would seem. He was a golden-hearted man who took an interest in boys, guided them, took them on outings, had them at his house for parties and sleep-overs. He was a mentor and coach.
He was a powerful man in the community, which in my experience makes him suspect.
But then, I’m a survivor of child sex abuse. My abuser also was a beloved member of the community who just adored children, so I have a pretty good icky meter. Most people don’t. That’s why so many abusers get away with it.
They start by grooming the victim. Usually it’s allowing the child to have something parents don’t want them to have — access to video games, a couple of dollars, junk food, alcohol … whatever. Now the abuser is in a position of even more powerful (being an adult is a power position in itself).
The abuse might start with a back rub or a tickling session where private parts are touched “accidentally.” By now, the child might feel uncomfortable, but the abuser has a number of secrets and the child is afraid of parents finding out about the dirty movies or the alcohol, or whatever the abuser has used against the child.
Now the abuser has the child under his control, and the child is certain nobody will believe him (or her). The abuser might actually believe he’s in love with his victim, and the abuse can last for years, as it did in my case. I called a stop to it when I was 12 but it had gone on since I was 3. I never told anyone until I was in my mid-30s because no one would have believed me. When I told my mother, she was shocked, but she did believe me; there was no reason not to. I was almost 40.
“Why didn’t you tell us?” she asked.
“You wouldn’t have believed me,” I said. “Be honest about it; you would have had to choose between me and Grandpa.”
That’s another truth about child abuse; people don’t want to believe they’ve been snowed by an abuser, so it’s easier to accuse the child of making it up.
So, when Sandusky’s Victim One got “creepy love letters” from the coach, he was too afraid to take the letters to anyone in authority. Even with the evidence, who would believe him — a powerless kid — over this bastion of power in the community?
The second victim to testify talked about the refusal of a school counselor to believe him. Honestly, it’s easier to believe the kid is making it all up than to think about taking down someone as loved as Coach Sandusky.
I was a single mom, and I was more than careful about whom I would allow access to my boys. When a neighbor offered Mike a couple dollars to help him clean up his workshop and then told Mike he didn’t need to tell his mom about it, he was flat-out forbidden to go back there.
When a co-worker offered again and again to take Danny on outings, I felt something creepy and declined the offer. Later, that man — also a former coach — would be arrested for having sex with underage boys.
Are all coaches, priests, Scout leaders and friends of kids suspect? Absolutely not; most are fine.
But when someone takes too much interest in kids for no apparent reason, I suspect. When someone wants to be alone with kids — especially if there will be no other adults nearby, I suspect.
There are two things you can teach children that will protect them:
1: They never have to hug or otherwise be touched by someone if they don’t want to. Their bodies are their own and they alone decide who touches them (except for a doctor or nurse during an exam, with you present).
2: Don’t let anyone tell them to keep secrets from Mom and Dad, no matter what. There is never a good enough reason for an adult to tell a child to keep a secret from his or her parents.
But most of all, if your child tells you someone makes them feel creepy, alarms should go off. Never dismiss your child’s feelings out of hand.
Leslie Boyd, a former newspaper reporter, is president of the health care advocacy nonprofit, WNC Health Advocates, founded in memory of her son, who died in 2008 because he couldn't access health care. E-mail her at leslie at lettersfromtheleft dot com or follow her on Twitter @leftyletters1, visit Letters from the Left on Facebook. For more information about WNC Health Advocates or to read Boyd's health care blog, visit wncha.org.