People have heard and seen the clichés: rapists awaiting in dark allies, pedophiles snatching children off the street on their way home from school or a newly-released criminal looking for action preying on a community. Today, this is not the way sexual assault mostly occurs.
Now, sexual offenders are parents, siblings, grandparents, teachers, mentors and priests. They are the people who smile and wave at strangers or the homeless. They donate to charity and are humble. They are seen as role models and leaders. They are as dangerous as colorless, tasteless, odorless carbon dioxide lurking in a basement.
As a survivor of sexual abuse, I know the impact that one devastating event can have on a person’s entire life. It is not just a fleeting moment for a victim; it is a lifelong memory recall and fear of the unknown. Victims of sexual abuse tend not to tell anyone what is happening to them, leaving them to battle many issues alone: suppressed pain, eating disorders, suicidal thoughts, depression, low self-esteem, promiscuity, gender-identity issues, disassociation, problematic coping behaviors (addictions, prostitution, perfectionism, etc.), and feelings of helplessness or despair. Why do children battle this alone? Instead of adults openly supporting children, they are openly supporting criminals.
I am deeply saddened by a recent report of sexual abuse by clergy. In November 2007 it was reported that Michael Salerno, also known as “Father Mike”, sexually abused a 13-year old boy in the late 1970s in a New York church. On November 20, 2007, The Baltimore Sun reported that Salerno’s current parishioners at St. Leo’s Catholic Church were not only in denial of the allegations, but they openly supported him stating that “Salerno's lifetime of doing good would earn him repentance in their book”. The St. Leo community eagerly awaited the investigation to be over.
However, Salerno’s “lifetime of doing good” turned into a lifetime of lies. He finally admitted to the allegations in December 2008. After more than a year of support from the parishioners, if a child of the St. Leo community was abused by Salerno, would they speak up now that the community has supported him in his lie?
All children, especially those who are preyed on by criminals, need adult support. It is important that adults educate themselves on the basic ideas of sexual abuse. This will help adults notice signs of abuse in children. When these signs are noticed, it is important that the compassionate adult believes the child and helps validate the child’s feelings while assuring the child that what happened was not their fault. This will help the child trust the adult enough to open up about what has happened to them. Children need adults’ absolute loyalty: do not sympathize with the abuser. This will not only stop the victimized child from opening up, but it causes a stream of silence in other possible victims. If you support the criminals openly, the children will remain silent.
Resource: Sumathi Reddy, “Residents rally around priest: Many support Salerno after abuse allegation”. The Baltimore Sun.