Shocking as these cases are, the rape and sexual abuse of children is sadly a national epidemic. The statistics about this national plague are startling:
• 20 percent of America’s children suffer sexual abuse, according to the National Institute of Justice;
• Of those, 56 percent suffer their abuse at the hands of family members or other people they trust and respect; and
• Only 10 percent of predators are ever exposed
Since these crimes don’t usually get the sustained headlines as we are experiencing recently, it seems to me that this may be one of those “teachable moments” about this scourge as we look at the parallels between revelations from Syracuse and PSU. Here are five lessons we can draw from today’s headlines:
Abusers Exploit A Power Relationship - People who abuse kids have a power relationship with their victims. They are often family members, family friends or relatives, but are also coaches, religious leaders, doctors, and youth workers. One thing all abusers have in common is that they hold a position of influence and trust in the life of a child and use that power to violate that trust.
Reputation Is Place Ahead Of Kids – There is a tendency for leaders of organizations to protect their institution first when instances of abuse arise. What happened at Syracuse and Penn State is no different than the practices we have seen repeatedly exposed over the past decade in religious communities like the Catholic Church, in Scouting, other youth organizations, and within families. When officers and leaders fail to report credible allegations of these crimes, the real damage they do is to children who are the victims.
Abusers Continue Their Crimes – When an institution fails to report an incident of abuse to law enforcement, the pedophile not only avoids punishment, but is free to continue to prey on more victims. Experts say the average pedophile has more than 100 victims in a lifetime. As we see in both the Syracuse and Penn State cases, once a victim speaks up, others who were abused by the same predator also find the courage to come forward, too.
Pedophiles Count On Delay - Victims usually take a long time to come forward and report what happened to them, often well into adulthood. Mental health experts say only ten percent of those abused ever come forward at all. That means most perpetrators - and those who helped hide them - are never publicly exposed. We need to do more to make parents and the public aware of the signs of child sexual abuse. We also need to improve how we handle allegations of abuse within organizations and institutions and at law enforcement agencies so that abusers can be identified and stopped.
New York's Law Are Extremely Lax - Laws about reporting abuse vary from state to state, and so do criminal and civil statutes of limitations. In New York, they are so unreasonably short that many perpetrators are able to evade exposure by simply waiting out the statute of limitations - and meanwhile they are free to continue to abuse more children. Despite our lax laws, New Yorkers have had to go to other states to get justice. One victim of abuse by a coach from a Queens parochial high school saw his abuser found guilty in Boston; eight victims of an Albany-area priest saw their abuser sentenced to jail when they took their case to Berkshire County, MA.
My Child Victims Act (A5488) will extend the existing criminal and civil statute of limitations for these crimes in New York State. It will also create a civil “window” to completely suspend the statute for one year. This “window” will help expose those who are guilty of earlier crimes by identifying previously hidden abusers through the discovery process in court. Criminals who thought they had evaded justice will be identified and society can ensure they can never abuse a child again.
When the extent of child sexual abuse in our society first came to my attention eight years ago, I felt rage and I still do every time I hear about yet another incident of rape or a sexual crime against a child. For this latest round of scandals to truly be a teachable moment, I think it is important for all of us to express a lot of rage and then do something about it.
What I am doing is trying to make the Child Victims Act of New York become state law, and as we begin a new year and a new legislative session I hope everyone who cares about our children will support it.
Margaret Markey represents the 30th District in the State Assembly. Her Child Victims Act has been adopted three times in the Assembly but has not been brought to the floor of the State Senate.