Monday, May 2, 2011

Child sex abuse is fueled by public silence

The following article is being shared with the permission of the original author.  We are posting this as a follow up to our April 26th post "Silence."

The Morning Call

Tammy Lerner doesn't begrudge breast cancer its pink ribbons, popular fundraising organizations or high-profile walks.

She just wishes the battle to combat child sex abuse could attract that kind of support.

As a co-founder of the Foundation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse and a survivor of child sex abuse, she's frustrated that people don't recognize the social and economic costs. So she contacted me after my most recent article about predators within the Catholic Church and the institutional efforts to shield them, applauded my coverage but noted, "I wonder why it is that clergy sexual abuse has dominated media coverage within the issue of CSA since 2001, yet it comprises a mere 5 percent of CSA incidents."

She says incidence rates for child sex abuse are about 10 times as high as cancer, yet billions of dollars are devoted to cancer research and very little to child sex abuse research and prevention. "CSA is a public health epidemic of such monumental proportions that 1 in 4 girls will be afflicted with it, as will 1 out of 5-6 boys."

So we sat down to talk about the failure to give this issue the attention it deserves, and the New Tripoli woman kept returning to … elephants.

Imagine elephants walking down a busy street or crashing around in the house next door. Potentially very destructive. Someone would have to address that, right? Police. Firefighters. Elephant tamers.

Child sex abuse is just as big, just as destructive, inflicting long-term serious health effects on its victims, destroying individuals and families, adversely affecting schools and workplaces. Yet it's largely ignored, except in terms of treating the victims we know about and occasionally prosecuting the perpetrators. "I don't think people understand how many elephants are walking around," she said.

Her own story is instructive. Lerner got a phone call in 1998 from her cousin. "Do you remember what John [not his real name] did?" the cousin asked.

Those six words made the 28-year-old wife and mother feel sick to her stomach. "It was like my whole world just stopped," Lerner told me.

What two members of her large extended family had done was to sexually abuse her for several years, beginning when she was about 4. Her cousin was another victim of one of them.

As she and her cousin began talking about something that the family always had avoided talking about, they considered how many other victims there had been. Lerner has more than 20 first cousins.

They decided to split up the list of cousins and begin calling. Before long, they had uncovered five more girls who had been abused by one or both of these men.

Unfortunately, Lerner quickly learned that the statute of limitations had expired for all the victims but one younger cousin who wasn't willing to press charges. So there was nothing anyone could do, civilly or criminally. This made Lerner very angry. She not only wanted these men to be punished, but she wanted their names in the newspaper to alert other families and perhaps bring more victims forward. "I know what I've endured," she said. "I didn't want anyone else to endure it."

This frustration energized her to finally speak publicly about her own abuse and to actively support legislation that would make Pennsylvania less predator-friendly. Since then, there have been incremental improvements. In 2002, the state criminal and civil statutes of limitations for childhood sex abuse were extended to the year when the victim is 30 years old. The criminal statute of limitations was further extended to age 50 in the wake of the 2005 grand jury report about sex abuse and cover-ups in the Philadelphia Archdiocese.

The problem with many of the crimes unveiled in these grand jury reports and other cases has been that these statute of limitation extensions aren't retroactive, leaving an army of victims with no legal recourse against their tormentors. The latest grand jury recommended a two-year window in which the statutes would be suspended for all civil cases so the victims — including many whose abuse was concealed specifically so the abusers would reach the protection of the statute of limitations — finally can pursue justice.

A few days after we met, Lerner was asked to participate in a Harrisburg press conference focusing on new House Bills 832 and 853, which respectively would eliminate civil and criminal statutes of limitations and open that two-year civil window. Several victims' groups were represented.

This brings us back to where I started, with the difficulty all of them have found in stirring the public to give child sex abuse the same kind of attention and money that other public health issues receive. Fundraising is really difficult, for a variety of reasons.

There's the misguided perception that this is an attack on the Catholic Church, when in fact priests are a tiny part of the problem. There's the stigma this subject carries, making it painful even to talk about, let alone embrace as a cause. There's skepticism about repressed memories or, if they weren't repressed, the reliability of adults' memories of things that happened to them as children. "I can't remember what I had for breakfast last week," someone will say, "and you remember this?'

Well, yes. Their lives were changed by those events. "When I was a little girl," Lerner said, "I never thought, 'I want to be director of a foundation to fight child sex abuse.' That's not what I wanted to be."

And if you think there would be a wave of false accusations, try to imagine how painful it is to say someone molested you, to go through the ordeal of court and publicity. Most victims aren't looking for a big payout, and in many cases, evidence would be hard to come by. They're looking for some acknowledgment, for assurances that other people will be protected and maybe for the counseling or other medical care they need to pick up the pieces. Just putting that perpetrator's name in a lawsuit means so much, Lerner said, when you've been suffering so long in silence.

"Silence is what keeps this thing fueled," she said.

Rest assured that there are those who infinitely prefer that silence and that they'll lobby against this legislation. I hope you encourage your representatives to listen to the voices of the victims, not the predators and their protectors.

An elephant this big should not be invisible. 610-820-6105
Here is a link to the original article by Bill White, Child sex abuse is fueled by public silence.

No comments:

Post a Comment