Who Should Tell: On Child Sexual Abuse

Sandusky, Boy Scouts Canada, and revived memories of Mount Cashel and the Roman Catholic church – there are a lot of people reading and thinking about child sexual abuse these days.

We’ve come a long way since the coverups of earlier decades, but as the Scouts Canada controversy shows, many people still don’t understand how or why child sexual abuse is reported.

There seems to be a misconception that a child is abused, tells a trusted adult, and the situation is dealt with in the courts and through the judicial system. In actual fact only a small percentage of children disclose their abuse in childhood. And of those that do, a large percentage are faced with an adult who either doesn’t believe them, doesn’t respond appropriately, or doesn’t take the required action. 

“Why didn’t they tell?” is a common reaction to allegations of past sexual abuse. Some even take the position that if a child didn’t tell when it was happening, then it is possible it never happened at all. Marketing campaigns aimed at children – badly aimed in the opinion of one survivor – tell children to disclose. But we have done little as a society to address the real issue – that of the bystanders who suspect but never say a word.

In her essay on the subject, Good Men Project contributor Gretl Claggett wrote: 
"But why didn’t you say something?" people ask; and, unintentionally or not, their tone often incriminates. Perhaps that’s because they only see me, the adult—not the five, nine or 13-year-old I once was. While ‘good touch, bad touch’ talks may help, children can’t be expected to carry the burden of awareness and prevention.
And yet this is often what we ask and even expect them to do. We’ve all seen the ads directed at children telling them that they should tell someone about their abuse. But as one survivor says, “no child would notice those ads. There are no flashy colours, bright toys, tasty treats. When I was a kid I noticed Toucan Sam and the Cocopuffs rabbit, not some sad-eyed kid talking on the TV.”

And no advertising campaign will ever make up for all the inhibitions against disclosure. As that same survivor, who choses to remain anonymous says:
 Childhood is a confusing time. We’re told that hitting isn’t right but our parents spank us and friends hit us and no one suffers any repercussions. We’re told that stealing isn’t right, but Daddy brings home pens from the office and Mommy picks up a dime dropped in a parking lot. There’s no gray zone in a child’s mind. What adults do is right. What they say is hardly ever true. Even if an adult had sat down with me and said ‘no one should ever touch you like that,’ I would’ve taken it in the same way I took in statements that my brothers shouldn’t hit me. They did. That was life. Should and shouldn’t didn’t enter into it.
And the fact is, between abuses, I didn’t think about it. Or tried not to. If my abusers weren’t around, I could live a ‘normal’ life. And if they were around, they were surrounded by adults that facilitated them and turned a blind eye. Of course I knew it was wrong. It hurt. It terrified me. But so did getting my scraped knee cleaned. I could normalise the experience. I had to in order to survive.
Expecting children to disclose abuse is ridiculous. Looking at the numbers from Scouts Canada, of 486 cases of abuse reported since 1947, 328 were already known to authorities before Scouts Canada became aware. Those 328 cases are likely instances where an individual became known to authorities through other actions such as purchasing child pornography, or where an adult came forward years later to report abuse.
In a study released by Save the Children Sweden, titled “Why Didn’t They Tell Us: On Sexual Abuse inChild Pornography,” authors looked at the cases of 22 children who had been sexually abused and were old enough and physically able to talk about it. None of the children self-reported the abuse. Most of them suffered at least a year of abuse. “The children had kept this to themselves and had not talked about this to parents, friends, siblings, relatives or to some other adult. This is a very compelling argument that children do not at all, or very reluctantly, talk about sexual abuse. This is also a very formidable contrast to the idea that children invent or make false accusations of sexual abuse.”

Authors found that the average amount of time the children – and this was a small subset of children whose abuse was later discovered without them reporting – lived with their “secret” was 44 months. Other reports and studies have found an average of five years before a child reports any abuse activities. This does not mean that all cases are reported within five years, but that of that small percentage of cases that are disclosed by the victim, it takes approximately five years for the disclosure to happen.

Those are not the important numbers, though. The important numbers are those like the 129 files on reported abuse from 1947 to 2011 that Boy Scouts Canada never passed on to authorities. Or if that’s too hard to remember, think of the number three. Only about one in three children report their abuse. Most have to report it to at least three adults before someone takes action.

In every case of child sexual abuse, there is someone who knows, who suspects, or who just feels funny about it all. Predators groom children who are easily taken in. They also groom the adults around them by making it hard to believe they would do such things. But adults have better ability to discern when they are being manipulated. Adults have a responsibility to care for vulnerable children. Children do not have a responsibility to take care of themselves.

“I did tell,” one survivor says, “I told one person.  Maybe I didn’t use the right words. Maybe I didn’t make it clear enough. But what child can make anything clear? She didn’t do anything about it. I assumed no one would. So I just lived with it.”

Children shouldn’t have to “live with it,” and they shouldn’t be made to feel like it is their responsibility to stop it. It is our responsibility to step out of the bystander role and take action for our children. According to a CBC report, of those 129 unreported Boy Scout cases, commissioner Steve Kent said “We found examples of individuals being unsure of how to report abuse, or whether it was necessary to report. In some cases, an offence was thought to be inappropriate for a Scouts leader, but not necessarily criminal in nature, and therefore did not require reporting to authorities.”

That’s not good enough. Maybe instead of asking why children don’t tell and trying to teach them to tell, it’s time we concentrated more effort on making it clear that adults must tell.