Time and time again, this question is raised. Often, it comes from those who are genuinely confused but don’t have much familiarity with the dynamics of sexual abuse. Sometimes, it comes from those who are understandably frustrated because they read of predators striking again and again, over years, only to learn that in theory one or two victims might have theoretically stopped him had they reported the crimes earlier.
It’s a question that has as many answers as there are victims. That may sound like a bit of a cop out, but it’s true.
The short simple answer, of course, is this: Rape and child sexual abuse victims come forward when they can. We must accept this and be grateful – emphatically, consistently and publicly grateful – every time a victim speaks up.
Instead of questioning a ‘late reporting’ victim, we must support him or her. Instead of doubting his or her motives, we must praise his or her courage.
But there are some broader dynamics at play here. Let’s look at a very common one: when a child is abused in a beloved institution, like a Boy Scout troop or a parochial school.
Let’s say that a former Boy Scout, now in his 20s, ponders whether to step forward about the crimes committed against him in the troop.
On one hand, he worries about young Scouts still in the troop, often around the still-serving child molesting Scoutmaster. And he knows he’s been wronged (though, like many men, he minimizes it by believing “Well, it just happened once” or “It was bad at the time but I’m over it now” or “I fought him off before he penetrated me.”)
So deep down, he may intellectually know what he should do. But emotionally, he’s deeply torn.
There are of course, all the usual reasons victims keep quiet: shame, humiliation, self-blame, concerns for his family or reputation or business or career. . .
But there’s another set of considerations this young man must grapple with in his decision-making. “I loved that troop. I loved my brother Scouts and our hikes, our camaraderie, our camping trips, and all that. I don’t want to sully my memories and experiences, or theirs, by dwelling on and bringing up
And then there’s the Scouting program itself. “For 98% of the boys, it’s a terrific bonding and learning experience. I’d feel selfish doing anything that might cause more helicopter parents to deny their kids this great program and these great opportunities just because I personally suffered at the hands of one ‘bad apple.’”
See the conundrum?
Or let’s a young woman was molested as a kid by an employee at her Catholic parochial school. Again, before she takes action, she must overcome all the usual reasons to keep quiet: shame, humiliation, self-blame, concerns for her family or reputation or business or career, plus the old “Maybe I did something to lead him on” or “Maybe people will claim I was overly sexual or scantily dressed or ‘wanted it.’”
And then there are the added conflicting feelings: “My family has belonged to this parish for generations,” “If I do something, will mom and dad and grandma and grandpa feel ostracized by their fellow church-goers, or will they actually BE ostracized?” “For all its failings, and my abuse, overall this school was a great experience for me, way better than had I been forced to go to the crummy public school down the street. And the school is having a tough time financially. I sure wouldn’t want to do anything that might tip the scales and cause its closing.”
In both situations, here’s another likely worry by victims: “We had a small, very closely knit class/troop. I hear that victims can protect their privacy in criminal or civil cases. But I know it wouldn’t take long for everybody to figure out exactly which student/Scout is speaking up, even if my name itself isn’t plastered all over the news or the Internet.”
Contrast these conflicting emotions with the fairly straightforward cases of other crime victims. Those who’ve had their homes broken into or purses taken or cars stolen or bodies beaten up in a fight suffer too of course. But emotionally, they generally don’t feel deeply torn. They’re angry at the criminal. Maybe they’re upset because the police didn’t respond immediately, the parking lot didn’t have great lighting or the security guard didn’t step into the fight sooner. But they don’t feel competing loyalties, or fears that their report will force a business to close or that their identity will be disclosed.
Remember, there are many reasons most victims are unable to immediately say “Hey, I was molested.” Let’s all try to show more compassion and understanding and less judgement and confusion