Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children
April is both National Child Abuse Prevention month and Sexual Assault Awareness month. Their co-occurrence has particular significance given the number of high profile reports of sexual abuse perpetrated by individuals in positions of authority within respected institutions which have come to light in recent years.
Much of the recent attention has focused on the world of sports. Reports of sexual abuse by Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky and Syracuse University basketball coach Bernie Fine have dominated the headlines.
Equally disturbing are the accounts of the 21 men who have come forward about their abuse by a former Red Sox clubhouse manager, the seven allegations of abuse levied against renowned gymnastic coach Doug Boger, and the reports of 36 swimming coaches banned for life for sexual misconduct over the last 10 years by USA Swimming, the governing body for the sport up to and including the U.S. Olympic team.
These accounts, in addition to the seemingly endless stream of reports of sexual abuse committed by a rogues’ gallery of teachers and other trusted adults here in Massachusetts and throughout the country, leave no room for doubt about the depth and scope of the scourge of child sexual abuse.
During this time we have also been moved by the courage of public figures, including Mets pitcher RA Dickey, performers Ashley and Naomi Judd, boxer Sugar Ray Leonard, singer Missy Elliott and U.S. Senator Scott Brown, who have come forward to discuss the abuse they suffered as children. These events, on the heels of earlier revelations of sexual abuse by Catholic priests, Boy Scout leaders and others, have sparked public outrage and led to significant policy reforms including enhanced penalties for perpetrators, improvements in mandated reporter laws and refinements to the definitions of sex crimes. It has also led to the adoption of policies and procedures for responding to reports of child abuse by a wide range of organizations and institutions.
While these changes are important and positive steps, they do not answer the central question of how to stop the abuse from happening to begin with. Identification of an effective means of preventing abusers from committing the first instance of abuse remains elusive. However, there is a clearer solution to stopping the continued abuse of a child and keeping other children from being victimized.
It starts with each of us. When we hear or see something that makes us concerned that a child may be being abused, we must take action and report it. We cannot and should not delay because we don’t have proof. We must trust that those charged with investigating these reports will do the right thing, knowing that those who are innocent have nothing to fear from an inquiry about a child’s well-being. When those institutions fail we must hold them accountable. We must let nothing else take priority over the protection of children. Nothing.
MARYLOU SUDDERS is President & CEO of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.