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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]

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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