In a closely watched case, former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky was sentenced this week to 30 to 60 years in prison for sexually abusing 10 boys over a span of 15 years. What’s come to be called the Penn State child sex abuse scandal roiled the nation last year. We have since learned Sandusky not only sexually assaulted a number of boys on university property, but that Penn State officials, including the revered head football coach Joe Paterno, were aware of some of Sandusky’s actions and even covered them up, fearing public knowledge would tarnish the university’s football program’s reputation.

The news of Sandusky’s sentencing was overshadowed by revelations that the Boy Scouts of America failed to report hundreds of incidents of suspected child sex abuse within the organization from 1970 to 1991. And all this comes on the heels of several other highly publicized cases of institutional child sex abuse—including the Catholic Church and the Horace Mann School. Horace Mann—an elite, private school in the Bronx—was rocked by a June 2012 New York Times article revealing that several well-regarded faculty members sexually abused countless male students 20 to 30 years ago, all of which the school at the time allegedly ignored, downplayed, or hid.

These cases are an important reminder that, despite most Americans’ condemnation of child sexual abuse, an institutional culture can arise that ignores and even condones behavior that everyone can agree is wrong. How does this happen?

The institutions involved in these cases have many elements in common that can facilitate not only child sex abuse but also its concealment: they typically have a strict hierarchy, with adults in complete charge of children and perceived as trustworthy authority figures, and thus as unquestionable. They are often single-sex institutions or create tight homosocial environments which promote their distinctiveness and specialness from the everyday world. They are revered institutions, highly regarded within their communities, if not nationally and internationally. And they often have a great deal to lose by allegations of child sex abuse.

The parents I interviewed for my book spoke extensively about their concerns about child sex abuse. Some also shared their own experiences as survivors of child sexual abuse. Like the above cases, parents’ stories and anxieties shed light on why children may remain quiet about the abuse they experience at the hands of adults and how many abusers remain outside the law.

For one, parents who confided a history of child sex abuse were clear that very few people (if any) knew that this had happened to them. I felt honored that these parents trusted me enough to tell me about being sexually abused as children, but also saddened that they continue to carry the burden of this secret. As children, none of the parents had reported the abuse, fearing exposure and feeling shame and culpability. Nor, as adults, had they told others, including their children, about the abuse. These parents were fearful that the same thing could happen to their children, yet were loath to talk about their own experience.

The parents’ stories also revealed a tragic reason why child sex abuse may not be reported or spoken of. Despite all the media attention cases like Penn State and the Catholic Church inspire, much sexual abuse happens in the privacy of the home and in some cases the perpetrators are family members. For example, an uncle sexually abused Sheila, one of the mothers I interviewed, when she was a child. This man continues to be a part of Sheila’s family and Sheila sees him routinely at family events. Sheila did not report the abuse when it happened and has not told anyone about it. Sheila’s two adult sons and teenage daughter have grown up spending time around this uncle — with Sheila watching him like a hawk. Sheila was especially concerned about the attention her uncle directed at her daughter when she was younger: “I would have to go and get her away, distract her from my uncle and stuff like that.” Sheila also warned her daughter away from adult men in general, yet she felt — and continues to feel — helpless to report or expose her uncle, a stern authority figure.

Similarly Elena worried that the man she currently lives with—a boyfriend she moved in with due to economic necessity—might be preying on her 16-year-old daughter. Elena doesn’t know how to tell her daughter about her concerns and instead maintains intense vigilance. Like Sheila, she keeps careful tabs on this man’s whereabouts when he is at home with her daughter. She fears not just that the man might molest her daughter, but also that her daughter, who is quiet and shy, might not speak out if he does try something against her.

So how does child sexual abuse persist at the family-level? While the heinous acts of abusers themselves should not be discounted, abuse is also maintained through silence, fear of family disruption and exposure, respect for authority, and individual attempts at protection, such as supervision. Like the institutional responses above, these strategies may not protect children, and they ultimately let the adult abuser (or potential abuser) off the hook.

Actual cases of child sexual abuse have declined since the 1990s.  Yet, as the child sex abuse scandals and the parents’ stories reveal, much abuse goes unreported.  It is time to end the silence around child sex abuse.  This means not only warning children away from predatory adults and telling them that their bodies are their own, but also talking openly and honestly about how abuse happens, why it is wrong, and why it can be hard for children (and even adults) to report it.

Whether parents who have experienced child sex abuse feel comfortable talking about their own experiences or not, they (and indeed all parents) can and should encourage their children to question adult authority.  Children are taught from a young age that they must listen to and obey their parents, teachers, and other adults.  This can make it very confusing when a trusted adult (or any adult) violates a child.  So children need to hear that just because we’re adults doesn’t mean we’re always right—that children can and should stand up to adults who are doing something wrong.  When adult authority is inviolable, children are vulnerable. 

About the Author

Sinikka Elliott, Ph.D

Sinikka Elliott, Ph.D, author of Not My Kid: What Parents Believe about the Sex Lives of Their Teenagers, is a sociologist at North Carolina State University.

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