Friday, December 2, 2011

Facing the Monster of Abuse

If it were easy, we'd have figured out how to do it by now.

Determining the legitimacy of child abuse accusations.

Proving guilt or innocence of the accused.  And indeed, preventing child abuse in the first place.

Ever since the explosive charges against Jerry Sandusky first crashed onto the national stage from idyllic State College, Pennsylvania, Americans have been forced to acknowledge things that we'd just as soon not:  not only do sexual predators exist, but we don't deal with their existence well at all.

Until Sandusky is tried in a court of law, we won't know if a jury will find him guilty or innocent.  Notice, I didn't say a trial would tell us whether, in fact, Sandusky is guilty or innocent.  Most of us are jaded enough by trials gone wrong to know that unless a smoking gun can be found to irrefutably prove things one way or the other, suspicion will forever haunt Sandusky.  Or maybe even his accusers.

Granted, right now, things don't look good for his ever being able to convince all of us that he's utterly guiltless of the charges against him.  Enough circumstantial evidence and eyewitness accounts have already been revealed to pretty much seal his fate, not only in the court of public opinion, but with his employer, his longtime boss (who's also lost his job), and the legions of Penn State alumni and fans whose continued support of the school is in doubt.

What's the Distance between Penn State and Syracuse?

Fast forward a few weeks from when the Sandusky scandal first broke, and old allegations of child sexual abuse returned to rock the prestigious hilltop campus of Syracuse University in New York State.  It wasn't football this time, however, but Syracuse's storied basketball program, and its long-time assistant coach, Bernie Fine, at the center of the storm.

Back in 2002, Fine had been accused of child abuse by a former lodger in his home who claimed Fine had molested him when he was a teenager.  The accuser, now an adult, went to the Syracuse police with his claims, but the police, in what has become a small scandal of its own in the Syracuse area, apparently dropped the ball on investigating the allegations.

Fine's accuser then approached the Post-Standard, central New York State's regional newspaper, with an audiotape ostensibly containing a recording of Fine's wife on a telephone call in which she alluded to her husband's sexual appetite for boys and men.

After reviewing the audiotape and attempting to independently determine its veracity, the Post-Standard decided not to go public with the accuser's claim.  So in 2003, he went to ESPN with his audiotape, and ESPN reached the same conclusion as the Post-Standard.  It was a classic case of unsolicited evidence failing to meet a sufficient level of proof, especially as Mrs. Fine, when contacted for her version of events, protested that the accuser could have spliced together snippets of various telephone calls to create an allusion of reality contrary to the actual content of each phone call.

In other words, it was a typical he-said/she-said conundrum.

Might the Syracuse police department, the Post-Standard, and ESPN all have decided to not pursue the allegations because of who Bernie Fine was?  Perhaps the credibility of the accuser also played into their decision, since he was from a troubled home and had been living voluntarily in the Fine's basement as a babysitter for their young children.  Oh, and there was a question of several thousand dollars the Fines had either loaned or given to the accuser that hadn't been repaid.  Was that hush money, or was the accuser trying to get out of a debt?

We don't know.  The police raided the Fine family's home last weekend after another man came forward, claiming to have also been victimized by Fine when he was a child.  Unfortunately, the new accuser has his own criminal problems in Maine, where a teenager has accused him of molestation.  So it looks like we'll have to wait until everybody gets under oath in a courtroom for the truth to - hopefully - be proven.

Standing for the Victim

All this to say that even when it looks like a child predator gets outed, it's rarely a smooth case of guilt and innocence or crime and punishment.  For Sandusky, if the eyewitness account from one of his own staffmembers holds up under further scrutiny, the accusations against him will certainly be seen to have more integrity than Fine's accusers currently possess.  Which only makes the prospect of reporting the perpetrator of child abuse that much more frightening a prospect for the victim, since perhaps moreso than most other crimes, deceit and background baggage can quickly gum up the wheels of justice.

Which, of course, is a major part of the child abuse problem we have here in the United States.  Perpetrators know that they have a good chance of explaining their way out of any allegations, particularly if, as is suspected in the latest accusation against Fine, your accuser becomes emotionally scarred by the abuse and ends up committing his own antisocial behavior.  Continuing the cycle that nobody seems capable of stopping. 

Indeed, who knows but whether Sandusky and Fine were themselves victims of abuse when they were children?  That's pure speculation on my part, of course, and even if true, cannot ever be an excuse.  But at least it could be an explanation.  And perhaps even some glimmer of hope if we're ever to stem the tide against child abuse.  Because if we better learn those patterns which contribute to the crime, we might be able to intercept those patterns and keep them from replicating.

A friend of mine, J.C. Derrickrecently wrote an op-ed piece for the Washington Post about his own history as a victim of child abuse.  At first, he'd kept silent about the abuse for 15 years, only then to confide in a close circle of relatives and friends, otherwise keeping it all a secret.  Until now.

Derrick's abuser had passed away, as had the statute of limitations, before he told his parents.  So there was nothing criminally to be pursued even after he broke his silence to them.  But as the Sandusky scandal continued to rage last month, Derrick felt he could no longer keep what had happened to him - and how he felt about having to quietly endure the public's distorted reaction to Penn State's fiasco - bottled up any longer. 

After all, Derrick thought to himself, HE wasn't the criminal.  He hadn't done anything wrong.  He was just a kid, way back then.  A child; somebody his abuser - not only as an adult, but especially as a family member - should have been protecting.

So he told his story to none other than one of the world's most prestigious and widely-read newspapers.  I guess if you've decided to finally tell your story to a wide audience, that's an effective way to do it!

Walk This Way

Obviously, not every victim of child abuse has that opportunity.  But my friend took a crucial step in combating child abuse:  he told his story.  Not for money, or fame, or to make his family proud of him.  Indeed, he worried about how friends would feel about learning such a major fact of his life from the newspaper. 

He knows the stigma victims of sexual abuse - whether it took place when they were a child or an adult - endure in our sex-obsessed society.  So many aspects of the covenant of marriage - of which sex was originally intended to play a supporting (not central) role - have already been perverted in our culture.  Many of us even let the most fleeting of ignoble thoughts cross our minds when we learn that someone we know was sexually abused.  Might they have been obsessed with sex themselves to the point of misconstruing what they say happened to them?

Skepticism.  Wariness.  And maybe even a suspension of credibility.  Not for the alleged perpetrator.  But the victim.  What is the extent to which modern America's fascination with sex - even to the point of our being unaware of how fascinated we are with it - twists the very responses we need to extend towards victims of child abuse?

See?  It's not an easy question to answer.  None of the questions about child abuse are easy.

But should that be our excuse for letting this current wave of attention to the matter fade into obscurity?  Inevitably, the public's disdain for the subject will outweigh its curiousness about the present allegations, and it will settle back into the abyss of our cultural dialog until the next spectacular scandal erupts.

A scandal that might have been prevented if we seize the day and linger over the things we could be doing now to help end child abuse.

My friend J.C. believes talking about it is a step in the right direction.  He's also told me that he'd like to see every case documented in a standardized fashion, so that notes can be more methodically compared in terms of developing techniques to help thwart the most common predatory tactics.

Not a quick fix, of course, but does it sound like it's worth a try?

Good.  Let's keep walking.  And talking.

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