Grappling with child sexual abuse:
How preventable is it?
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Guest commentary by Debbie Thurman
[JAN. 28, 2006]
The recent sentencing of Vermont child rapist
Mark Hulett to only 60 days in jail has caused a national uproar.
Asserting that "anger doesn't solve anything, it just corrodes your
soul," Judge Edward Cashman appears to have, nevertheless, used the
whipped-up fury from his sentence to force changes in Vermont's
sexual offender treatment policies. Perhaps the momentum will carry
forward to new prevention and education programs as well.
Lawmakers are not taking aim at the right issues in seeking to deter
child sexual abuse. Bill O'Reilly recently dismissed with a
contentious wave of his hand a child advocate who wanted to discuss
prevention on his show. Oprah Winfrey likewise is focused on the
highly visible or violent offenders and their victims, even though
they represent only the tip of a huge iceberg. Many abuse survivors
and child advocates think large-scale education and prevention
programs would trump both offender treatment and one-strike laws in
effectiveness. Their expertise deserves a hearing.
As much as 93
percent of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by family members or
friends, who often remain anonymous (to everyone except the victim)
and safe from prosecution. What protects them? The child's fear of a
family breakup, enabling disbelief or denial by other family
members, or a confused love-hate relationship with the abuser, who
should be a nurturing protector. These children are the silent
majority of victims who later flood the mental health system with
suicidal depression, addictions and personality disorders.
Their poster child could well be Linde Grace White, author of "Dollbaby:
Triumph Over Childhood Sexual Abuse" (Cedar House Publishers, 2005).
Abused for years by her own father and enduring a family cover-up,
White retreated into a protective cocoon of several "alters" or
personas to help her handle life. "It took decades and a battle with
severe depression for me to even remember the abuse, let alone have
the courage to speak up and seek healing," White says. Confession: I
am also scarred by childhood sexual abuse that left me shamed, mute
and depressed for a long time. The silent cries of untold numbers of
victims like us are deafening.
The U.S. Department of Justice maintains that only 8 percent of
repeat sex crimes may be prevented when the offender seeks
rehabilitation. Yes, treatment in prison should be one mandatory
front in the war. If we were smart, however, we would learn to
utilize an army of volunteers -- say, "the Compassion Corps" -- for
such programs so we could divert funds to prevention and education.
Nonprofit recovery and prison ministries have a proven track record.
Reconciliation trumps retribution, even for the vilest offender. In
that sense, Cashman is right about blind anger, which is also toxic
to abuse victims.
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While many fed-up legislators around the country seek tougher
sentences for convicted pedophiles and sex offenders, White asks why
our tax dollars can't at least partially fund education programs
that teach children and parents about safe environments and how to
prevent or report sexual abuse, even in their own homes. "We rely on
parents to teach their children, but many are too naive themselves,"
says White. The Ad Council could broaden its predator awareness
messages. Celebrities could join the cause. Schools and churches
could readily sponsor both secular and religious programs. Every
family is at risk, yet many who are victimized will remain ignorant,
in denial or feel powerless to stop this epidemic that wounds one in
three girls and one in five boys before they reach the age of 18.
Are we too squeamish and afraid of offending sensibilities to
target incest and family abuse? There are recovered victims,
advocates, retired teachers and law enforcement officers right now
in every state who would relish the opportunity to work in our
communities -- many as unpaid volunteers -- to help prevent child
sexual abuse and flush out predators who are hiding behind their
families' fear and ignorance.
Of course we can't prevent all abuse. But we never know what we
can do until we try. With the likes of a righteously indignant Bill
O'Reilly or an Oprah Winfrey behind such an effort, which should
include admitting the role pornography plays in sexual abuse, we
could turn the tide of this war.
Debbie Thurman is a freelance journalist and founder of Sheer
Faith Ministries and Family Mental Health Advocacy in Monroe, Va.
Her e-mail address is
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