As we saw with the fall of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein—and so many others—it often takes many, many accounts of sexual harassment, rape, and sexual abuse to bring down a predator. Why does it take dozens of women to come forward against men like Weinstein or Bill Cosby to call them to account? Why does it take so many to report the terrible things a man like Jerry Sandusky did to children before we collectively believe it truly happened? Why don’t we believe the first victim? It’s a question we all must take a long, hard look at ourselves in the mirror to answer, and it has grave implications for any efforts to protect vulnerable children.
Private accusations swirled around both Weinstein and Cosby, and yet the first to go public were ignored by the media and slandered by their alleged abusers. Similarly, former Seattle mayor Ed Murray resigned last month, but only after a fifth man—Murray’s own 54-year-old cousin—accused Murray of sexually abusing him as a young teen. Yet as story after story of victims coming forward to detail how Murray had sexually abused them as children dropped in the papers, most members of the city council and many former mayors continued to support him until that fifth and familial victim triggered some kind of tipping point in their minds about the validity of the claims.
For those of us in the child abuse intervention world, it beggars belief to imagine four grown men engaging in some sort of conspiracy to smear a mayor at the cost of their own, quiet lives out of the public eye. Yet the dominant narrative in the media and the public appeared to be to reserve judgment until more victims came forward. (And, of course, the right, respectable kinds of victims. In a sick irony, the trauma child sexual abuse causes can lead to mental illness, substance use issues, and other problems that are exactly the sort of things that abusers use to discredit their victims.) Of course, everyone deserves due process. But why are more victims required before we choose to take the account of the first seriously? Why isn’t one victim enough?
Perhaps we don’t believe the first victim because we fail to understand what victims experience when they go public. After all, anyone—man, woman, or child—who has been sexually abused or assaulted faces hurdles unimaginable to many who haven’t been through it. Every victim faces not only the reawakening of their own trauma and the manipulations of the abuser, but also a society primed to believe they’re coming out about what happened to them for fame, money, or attention. They face an internet full of online bullies who troll their social media accounts. And, they face a daunting legal system in which the outcome is not assured and in which they must relive the most painful period of their lives. How brave would you have to be to face the storm, stand up, and tell your story, come what may?
Our failure to believe victims is the lifeblood of a culture of abuse that allows gut-churning trauma to run unchecked for decades. The names Jerry Sandusky and Joe Paterno will cast a long shadow on our national consciousness for years to come: one for his crimes; the other for his silence. It’s true that the Sandusky saga led to much-needed reforms in Pennsylvania, including the propagation of the Children’s Advocacy Centers—CACs—that provide healing and justice for abused kids. But that does nothing for the eight, and possibly many more, that must live out their lives damaged once by the man who hurt them, then twice by the communities that failed them.
However, it would be false to think that that this tragic epidemic of disbelief is solely triggered in rare cases that involve powerful celebrity predators or abuse that happened long ago. Not so. Virtually every multi-victim case—whether involving coaches, teachers, daycare providers, pediatricians, pastors, priests, scout leaders, or youth mentors—has involved precisely the same dynamic: a manipulative perpetrator expert at discrediting their victims, and supervisors, institutions, neighbors, and communities that did not believe the first victim. So there is a second…and a third…and sometimes tens or hundreds of victims before the predator is finally stopped.
Much has been made (and rightly so) of the complicity of institutions and their leaders in allowing abuse to continue unchecked possibly for decades. Yet, what about our own complicity, individually and societally, when we ignore the first disclosure of abuse, emboldening predators and thereby creating a tidal wave of sorrow in all the victims that will come after? How many kids could be spared pain if we all spoke up each and every time a victim comes forward?
The 822 Children’s Advocacy Centers in our movement work with dauntless prosecutors and law enforcement officers every day seeking justice for child victims. We start with the knowledge that even though we try to make the process of disclosing abuse easier, it’s often the hardest thing a child ever does. And, it is made more difficult by their knowledge that they might well not be believed by jurors, the media, neighbors, schoolmates, and the beloved members of their own private communities.
CACs, and their multidisciplinary teams, work every day to protect and help these children. But each of us, every adult in every community, has a personal and powerful role to play in their healing and ending the complicity of silence that otherwise yields a bottomless well of suffering. That transformative role starts with one very simple step: belief.
To start the healing of those already hurt; to make a world in which many do not have to be violated before we intervene; and to hold offenders accountable for the harm they cause—take that critical first step. When someone tells you what happened to them, simply believe them.