Why don’t survivors speak out sooner?
When the topic of Statute of Limitations reform is broached, a perennial question is “why don’t survivors disclose before the statute closes on them?” I’ll ignore the reasons children don’t disclose sexual abuse at its onset (btw, you can see them here www.childvictimsactusa.org) and focus on why adults don’t. The simplest answer to that question is that adults don’t disclose abuse because they believe the consequences for keeping their secret are worse than the consequences of sharing it. And when high-profile cases like this one happen, where a victim’s picture is circulated on the internet, we see proof that the consequences for telling can be significant.
One of the most common and debilitating effects of being sexually abused as a child is a massive sense of shame that engulfs every part of a survivor’s psyche. That shame logically leads to fear of having their secret revealed. It is also common for survivors to be threatened by their abusers in order to maintain their silence. The last time I spoke to the police about my father, I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep and was covered in hives. Never mind the fact that I had been in therapy for a few years, never mind the fact that I was otherwise able to speak and write about my abuse experiences reasonably well. Never mind the fact that I knew nothing I said was going to result in me having a day in court. No matter who you are, no matter how healthy you are, no matter how grown-up you may be, the decision to talk to law enforcement is harrowing.
In the last 30 years, many best practices have been established concerning the way CSA survivors should be handled during trial. Among them are that news stations don’t share victims’ names or pictures. Thirty years ago, that was a very useful safeguard. In these days of Twitter and Instagram, they are a little less useful.
The fear a survivor usually harbors when they go to court isn’t entirely intuitive to someone who isn’t a survivor or who knows nothing about the survivor community. For someone to do significant work to expose, and thereby terrify, humiliate and hurt a survivor fighting for justice, is both deliberate and vastly wrong. It makes any other survivor who hears about it less likely to report their abuser. And in a state like New York, whose Statute of Limitations (the victim’s 23rd birthday) is among the worst in the nation, you don’t need to frighten a survivor very long until you’ve frightened them enough to accomplish your plan.
Joe Paterno became utterly reviled as the Penn State narrative unfolded. He took a certain amount of action, but he also stopped short of ensuring a sexual predator wouldn’t have further access to children. He was perceived as having obstructed justice, and if he hadn’t died, he would have had to defend himself in court. We are slowly learning that denying CSA survivors justice hurts us, as a society, and ensures the ranks of survivors will continue to grow. The Adverse Childhood Experiences study shows us how damaging CSA is to individuals and to the nation. Hopefully, there will be a trial against Moses Klein. Hopefully, he will be severely punished for the damage he did. He harmed both the very brave woman who testified against Weberman and an untold number of victims who will now re-consider going to the police.
And in NY, an adult has precious little time to reconsider such a momentous act.
We have ten years of apathetic legislators and high-paid lobbyists to thank for that. And that is perhaps the biggest crime here.
Sign the petition for the Child Victims Act.
An act that allows survivors justice
and prevents other children from being abused.