THE SEXUAL ABUSE OF CHILDREN: Perpetrators, Victims, and Bystanders

By Tania L. Abramson and Paul R. Abramson

For the most part they hide in plain sight, but are strikingly invisible too, sheltered and camouflaged as husbands, boyfriends, uncles, grandfathers, priests, teachers, coaches, neighbors, lawyers, doctors, police officers, friends of the family, boy-scout leaders; the list is long and notorious for the perpetrators amongst us. Sometimes we’re surprised by the emergence, for example, of young women perpetrators, largely middle school teachers, who make a sport of sexually abusing multiple 14 year-old boys, but more often than not, even the hardened amongst us, are shocked by the atrocity of the crimes we have investigated and the commonality of these offenses. The sexual abuse of children, like death and taxes, is implausibly a sure thing.

The victims, both female and male, deserve all the acceptance, love and support we can muster. Repeatedly violated, they bear witness to unimaginable crimes. Shocked, stigmatized, and ashamed of their misfortune, they must now find ways, often on their own – and rudimentary at best – to cope and survive. Some make it, many don’t, but not from a lack of effort. As self-destructive as it may be, their failure rests largely at the door of our indifference.

Most people can’t be bothered by the enormity of it all, and the chronic nature of its aftermath. They want to help of course, at least some of them, and they certainly want solutions, but they want them fast and cheap. They want to put this all in the past, as quickly as possible. Nobody really wants to hear about the sexual abuse of a child. The longer it takes to get over it, the more discomfort and powerless everyone feels, which is, to say it again, the reason why victims deserve all the acceptance, love and support we can marshal.

Then there are the bystanders, the voluntary servitude of the masses, as de la Boétie described them, the largest group of all. Some are the deniers, either in whole or in part, giving credence to the crime but not the criminal, or denying child sexual abuse in its entirety. More likely however it’s an unwillingness to accept that a specific person, a family member perhaps, sexually abused a child. The child must be lying, or has been pressured to do so. Revenge and financial gain are the most common excuses for this belief. What concerns us more however are the rest of the bystanders. Those who can’t be bothered by the clamor, who do everything possible to avoid the discomfort, and who want to remain, at all costs, conveniently oblivious. More than anything else, it’s their indifference to this tragedy that makes the prosecution and prevention of child sexual abuse such an intractable problem.

Now imagine this. Everyone joins together to banish child sexual abuse from the planet. No heads in the sand, no blinders on the eyes, no hands over the ears. Apathy becomes a thing of the past. This dream, and regrettably it’s only a dream, is hard to let go.

Picture what we could achieve if, at the very least, we all gave credence to the crime of child sexual abuse, and we all supported the efforts of those actively involved in the prevention and prosecution of this crime, as well as those actively involved in the support and care for victims. Though we are, sadly, a far cry from this goal, we can be comforted and inspired by the heroes amongst us – those people and organizations that have made these objectives a priority. Darkness to Light (D2L), Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), National Crime Victim Law Institute (NCVLI), all come to mind, the Yale University Child Sexual Abuse Clinic too. Blatt afram, Janus Rehabilitation (Iceland), the author Gerður Kristny (Iceland), plus of course the Leiden University Child Abuse and Neglect Program, and Dr. Iva Bicanic at the University Medical Center Utrecht (the Netherlands). Other organizations of note include Oregon Abuse Advocates and Survivors in Service (OASSIS), Domestic Violence Legal Empowerment and Appeals Project (DV LEAP), Child Abuse Listening Mediation (CALM), Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), Stop It Now, Educate4Change, and for male survivors specifically, Male Survivor, 1in6 (USA), Survivors Manchester (UK), and Living Well (Australia). For all of the other countless individuals and organizations throughout the world who are truly dedicated to this cause, but not included in this overly abbreviated list, we are equally grateful and encouraged by their devotion and efforts to treat, prosecute, and prevent child sexual abuse.

tania b&w head shot with pearls.jpg
Tania L. Abramson, MFA

Dr. Paul R. Abramson
Professor of Psychology, UCLA

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