By Joelle Casteix
Child sexual abuse acts like a nuclear bomb in a community: While not everyone is immediately injured, the effects and pain for everyone involved can last for decades. No one teaches people how to react when someone they know is accused of abuse. The result? People react emotionally. Many times they side with the predator. Sometimes they even attack the victim. Either way, community reaction is seldom helpful.
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) addresses this issue head-on through an excellent handout that can help some communities. Although titled “What to Do When Your Priest Is Accused of Abuse,”6 it can apply to abuse in any situation.
Here are some relevant points:
- Be Open-Minded: It’s human nature to recoil in horror when hearing about abuse. It’s even natural to assume (and hope) that the allegations are false. Since child sex abuse is grossly underreported, however, it’s more than likely that the allegations are true, even if they can’t lead to an arrest due to the statute of limitations. Don’t jump to conclusions or be quick to judge. Wait until you have all the information.
- Allow Yourself to Feel Emotional: If someone you respect, admire, or love is accused of abuse, it’s okay to feel hurt, angry, or betrayed. It’s also healthy to allow those emotions to surface, so don’t stuff them away. Just don’t get carried away by emotions or do something drastic in the heat of the moment. In fact, if you think it will be helpful, go and talk to a professional who can help you try to sort through your feelings and respond in a healthy way.
- Don’t Try to Guess Who the Accuser Is: Crime victims are allowed to remain anonymous in the justice system. This is especially true for victims of sex abuse, who feel ashamed and isolated. Don’t go on a witch hunt.
- Understand That Abuse Victims Have Troubled Backgrounds: We know that predators target vulnerable and troubled children. As child sex abuse victims grow into adults, many suffer from addiction and anger issues. Criminal histories, depression, drug addiction, and mental illness are not uncommon. Don’t judge a victim because they were horribly damaged by the abuse.
- Don’t Discredit a Victim Who Comes Forward Years Later: The survivors I have worked with seldom, if ever, came forward at the time of the abuse. Studies by the US Department of Justice and my own experience show that it takes many sex abuse victims decades to come forward, if they come forward at all. That should not excuse a predator, who has more than likely spent the intervening years abusing other children.
- Don’t Allow Friends or Family to Make Disparaging Remarks about the Victim: Critical comments further victimize the abused and only discourage other victims from reaching out for help. Show compassion, and ask others in the community not to make hurtful comments. A six-year old incest victim who is told that she’s the “bad cousin” will only learn to be ashamed of her abuse. She will also (wrongly) blame herself for hurting the family by reporting a molesting grandfather.
- If You Support the Accused, Do So Privately: If people in the community—other abused children, in particular— see that adults they love and respect are publicly supporting accused perpetrators, they will be less likely to report their own victimization. So if you really must stand behind the accused, do so privately.
- Talk to Your Friends and Family about Abuse: Be frank. Encourage victims to come forward and get help—no matter who the abuser is.
- Don’t Be Blinded by Anger: Accusations of abuse lead to anger in the community, whether toward the perpetrator or the victim. Don’t allow your anger to take over. Instead, channel your emotions into action or talk to a therapist. The rage you feel is valid, but acting on it is not.
I hope you are never in this situation, with a predator who tears your community apart by committing child sex abuse. But if you are affected by child sexual abuse, or if you know someone who is, therapists and support groups are available to help you through the crisis without causing additional pain to yourself, the victims, or the community.
As a society, we have come to accept that church and community leaders are capable of committing terrible abuse. It is perhaps even more difficult to acknowledge that women and even our own family members can be predators. But there’s no need to be paranoid. Just look out for the warning signs and follow your gut. Of all the people you know, 99.9 percent are not predators. The key is learning to protect yourself, your child, your family, and your community from the one tenth of one percent who are.
A former journalist, educator, and public relations professional, Joelle Casteix has taken her own experience as a victim of child sex crimes and devoted her career to exposing abuse, advocating on behalf of survivors, and spreading abuse prevention strategies for parents and communities. She has presented to hundreds of audiences all over the world, including on the TEDx stage, on subjects such as abuse prevention, victim outreach, victims’ rights in the civil justice system, and parenting safer children. She is a regular speaker for the National Center for Victims of Crime, the Institute on Violence, Abuse and Trauma and The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
Casteix’s blog, The Worthy Adversary, is one of the leading sources for information and commentary on child sexual abuse prevention and exposure. She graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and completed graduate work in education at the University of Colorado, Denver. A wanna-be ski bum, she lives in southern California with her husband and young son.