Almost always, it happens like this: An offender abuses another person. The offender lords over the victim, coercing him into a pact of secrecy. It’s not a difficult task, since the victim is almost always less powerful (and dependent) on the offender.
Later, sometimes decades later, the secret emerges as the spoken truth. By that point the offender is no longer in control. The former victim, now moving in his journey into a new identity, is taking control.
This is when (unfortunately, too late to help) we can see the twin themes of sexual abuse: Betrayal, and Silence in the Presence of Evil.
Tonight on the news, I listened to the story of a very brave Sharon Bialek, who accused Republican Candidate Herman Cain of sexual harassment. She had been his former employee. She trusted him. She sought out his help in finding a new job.
Assuming her story is accurate, Herman Cain took her to dinner, acted like a gentleman, got her into his car, and then made a categorical, deliberately sexual, unwanted advance. Mrs. Bialek, no doubt shocked, angered, and dismayed, responded appropriately to the “Godfather,” telling him to stop.
She was an adult. Even so, her story illuminates the first theme of sexual abuse: Betrayal.
Richard Gartner Ph.D., author of Betrayed as Boys and Beyond Betrayal: Taking Charge of Your Life after Boyhood Sexual Abuse, describes a “sexual betrayal” which encompasses a greater range of human experience than the rather mechanical phrases such as “sexual abuse,” “incest,” and “sexual trauma.” Sexual betrayal goes beyond bruising or genetic wreckage. Sexual betrayal is a violation which does its damage beyond the body.
The more intimate the trust, the more grievous the damage. Is a boy and his parents going to trust–and follow the lead–of a well-known Football Coach? Of course. A coach by definition is a leader to take instruction from. If you’re a boy, you don’t question him.
Quite often, the relationship between the offender and the victim is one of necessity. A boy needs a role model. A woman needs a job. A child needs a spiritual mentor, a teacher, a parent.
This “necessity” is what sexual offenders exploit in order to get what they want. It is how Penn State assistant coach Gerald Sandusky earned the trust that allowed him to carry out his crimes.
Like my father, he found victims who needed him. He created a foundation to funnel them in.
Because betrayal involves the breaking of “unbreakable bonds” it can wreak lasting damage. It also makes it harder to believe. It’s hard for a parent to believe, a district attorney, and even the victim.
But this is just the beginning of the injustice. Like my father, Coach Sandusky had purchased “integrity insurance” over the years. If he were ever accused, he would have the support of his peers, and he’d have his foundation to point to. “See what a good man I am?”
For a long time, that insurance worked for Coach Sandusky. Years ago, a boy did come forward, but wasn’t believed by the district attorney. This reflexive defense of “Mr. Integrity” infuriates me and it should enrage any parent. But it happens all the time.
It makes betrayal all the worse because it is done with impunity. Victims of sexual betrayal are not injured just once. They’re violated many times, from many directions, again and again. Even if they get someone to believe that an offense happened, they still have the memory.
That memory isn’t just of the abuse itself. It is of the implicit or explicit pact between the offender and the victim. That pact is “we won’t tell anyone about this” and it magically leads the child into a belief that he was responsible for what happened. That sense of responsibility, of being at fault, can weigh on the victim’s heart until its last beat.
Remaining Silent in the Presence of Evil.
The kind of pact between offender and victim is not much different than the social pact between the offender and his peers. The pact is to turn a blind eye to a friend’s misdeeds. When the misdeed is child abuse, the pact is to remain silent in the presence of evil.
As far back as history can tell us, this pact has confounded men to the point of ruin. You can find it in the lore of King Arthur, and you can find it today in laws that require witnesses to sexual abuse to report it to the authorities. These laws are being invoked as I write this, about employees of Penn State, who knew but did not tell. Protecting their jobs, protecting the “reputation” of the football program, protecting Gerald Sandusky was more important than protecting the boys which, according to the Grand Jury report, he molested.
Except in cases where the pact-keepers are in physical danger, remaining silent is a cowardly, selfish pact to keep.
If you are a pact-keeper and you don’t know a way “out” then you should gather your resources, call a woman’s shelter, a child services hotline, a sheriff, a strong person in your life, and protect the children you love.