Consider these words:
“If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.”
That is one of the most-powerful lines in the movie “Spotlight,” which won Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards. The movie depicts the Boston Globe’s 2002 investigative reporting on sexual abuse and the cover-up in the Catholic Church in Boston.
Why is that line so powerful? Because it’s true.
For a perpetrator to sexually abuse a child, it takes a lot of people looking the other way — either as part of a deliberate cover-up or because people around the child aren’t paying attention.
Let’s consider an elementary school. The adults in that “village” include teachers, the school counselor, school nurse, principal, other employees, school volunteers, neighbors, and parents of other children.
If anyone in that “village” feels even the slightest twinge of concern about another adult, but doesn’t raise questions about his or her behavior, that person has contributed to an environment that allows abuse.
If sexual abuse is reported, the larger village now includes local police, district attorneys and judges. Sometimes, particularly in small, close-knit communities, these professionals may purposely look the other way, especially if the alleged perpetrator is well-respected in the community.
Right here in Pennsylvania, a case of sexual abuse and cover-up is unfolding in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown. According to a recent Pennsylvania grand jury report, priests sexually abused hundreds of children in the diocese and as many as 50 church officials participated in the cover-up. According to the grand jury report, police and people in the legal community were involved in the cover-up, too.
So, what can we do to protect our children?
For starters, as a community, we need to recognize how often sexual abuse occurs. One in four girls and one in six boys is sexually abused by the age of 18. Most often, the perpetrator is someone the child knows.
As adults, we need to educate ourselves on the red flags that may indicate abuse. We also need to keep our eyes open to behaviors that may seem unusual. In a school setting, is a student being asked to come in early or to stay late when the building is empty? On a sports team, is the child receiving gifts or special attention? Has the child’s behavior changed suddenly?
If a child says an adult scares them or if the child’s behavior changes suddenly, consider the possibility that sexual abuse is occurring. Ask questions of other parents. Have they noticed concerning behavior? Ask a professional at the school, or wherever the erratic behavior is occurring. Reach out to your local rape crisis center with questions. Be an active bystander.
Child sexual abuse occurs under the cloak of secrecy. Asking questions and bringing concerns into the open has the potential to save a child from abuse.
Remember: If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to protect one.
More information on how to protect children is available on this website and on the National Sexual Violence Resource Network website (http://www.nsvrc.org/).
Marylee Sauder has a corporate writing business, Sauder INK. She has written for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, PA Says No More, and the National Sexual Violence Resource Network. Marylee also is a trained community presenter on sexual assault prevention issues for the YWCA Lancaster.