Perhaps the most enduring and pervasive American myth concerning child sexual abuse is that nice guys don't molest children; and it's a pernicious myth because it denies the reality of a victim's suffering.
I thought that the Jerry Sandusky case would have put to rest the naïve and groundless notion that a child molester is easy to pick out of the crowd: he's the slovenly, leering, grizzled guy dressed in a dirty rain coat sitting outside a playground trolling for children. But the reaction by many who knew Dennis Hastert in his hometown of Yorkville, in Congress and elsewhere to the news that he allegedly paid hush money to a former student he had molested decades ago, showed me that the myth is alive and well.
Despite a steady stream of screaming headlines of exemplary high school teachers, devout priests, popular youth leaders and dedicated coaches sexually abusing countless children and teens, we stubbornly stick to the belief that kindness, solicitude and overall good 'guy-ness' are inconsistent with the character of a child molester. In the over thirty years I have spent representing victims of sexual abuse all over the nation, I have learned the reality is quite the opposite.
The great curve ball of sexual abuse that most folks completely miss, is simply this: in order to be successful at what they do, child molesters have to bend over backwards to be kind, caring and generous - not just their victims - but everyone within their targeted victim's universe. Being kind-hearted is essential to the abuser carrying out her grand scheme to draw the child into her web. Aggressive and antisocial behavior simply doesn't work because it stands in the way of gaining the child's trust: the molester's key ingredient to control. In fact, most child abusers know from experience that they don't need to explicitly threaten their victims (though some do) in order to get what they want, because the world they have created into which these children descend, engenders its own fear and confusion.
Child molesters are a patient lot, especially those in trusted and respected positions of authority. They are typically in no rush to achieve their goal and thus will spend weeks, even months working their way into the fine fabric of a child's life. They deliberately exploit the child's trust, innocence and inherent lack of life experience by lavishing him or her with gifts, special privileges and praise - and children who lack parental support or who have low self-esteem are the most susceptible to this kind of treatment. And though it is very difficult for the casual observer to appreciate, this course of conduct actually binds the child closer to the molester, resulting in the child's belief that this adult is actually a good friend. The molester soon makes physical touching - the stroke of a knee, a rub of the shoulder, the tussle of the hair - a normal part of his 'relationship' with the child. Soon the more invasive forms of abuse begin and the child's fate is sealed. If the molester has done his job right, he can count on the silence of his victim who is in most cases too embarrassed, confused and frightened to reveal the abuse at the time it is occurring. This tragic emotional trap was summed up perfectly by a high school student whose sister alleged in an ABC interview that Dennis Hastert abused her brother. In the interview his sister Jolene Burdge, quoted her brother as stating the reason he didn't tell anyone about the abuse was: "Who is ever going to believe me?"
While some victims can muster the strength to report the abuse when it is happening or very soon thereafter, for most justice is a word most will never know. And it is not just the horrendous psychological effects of the abuse that silences them. It takes years, even decades to muster the emotional strength to take action. And when that time comes, it is not their abusers who silence them, it is the law. Regardless of state criminal law, the reality is few prosecutors are willing to take on a sexual abuse case from twenty or thirty years earlier. (The recent criminal charges by the Ramsey County district attorney against the Archdiocese of Minneapolis for failing to protect children are the exception to the rule but perhaps it will motivate more prosecutors to rethink their strategies.) In the civil arena, only a few states have humanely recognized that the conventional Statute of Limitations for civil actions was conceived for completely different types of cases; most states deny justice to child sexual assault victims - unless these people act by age 18 or 21, they have no grounds for legal recourse. Not only do these laws prevent people from getting their rightful day in court, but in some cases they permit predators to go on molesting other children until someone manages to file an action. It is simply not in our society's interest to make it so difficult for these victims to get through the courthouse door. Unlike so many issues which we feel are out of our hands, this is one in which we can have an impact. If you live in one of the states with an unforgiving statute of limitations like New York, New Jersey or Pennsylvania and at least a dozen or more other states, you can support legislative reforms which have been effective in other states, like opening a one or two-year window (California led the way in 2003, followed by Delaware, Hawaii, and Minnesota), giving a person until his 48th birthday to sue those responsible for his abuse (Connecticut) or having a liberal discovery rule (Oregon and Washington).
It's never too late for justice.
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