on the lawvirtual children by Scott Warnock

Child abuse: We’re just not getting it

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As we withstand the informational deluge from Penn State, we are faced with the possibility of another case of institutional child abuse, in which a whole group of people, a whole structure, contributed to the horrific abuse of children. It is clear that we are just not getting it.

We need a new lens to view the sexual abuse of children. We collectively profess to know it’s wrong to rape a child. But not only is child abuse common, people in powerful positions protect abusers. Maybe some day we’ll crack the psychiatric pathology of the pervert/pedophile, but understanding those who would protect them? They must only be able to do so because we have come far short of articulating and understanding the gravity and effect of these crimes. Perhaps if the effects were clearer, more broadly conceived, then we can unleash the full wrath of our terrible societal engines against all such transgressors.

We haven’t done this already because, sadly enough, we apparently need more than emotion to govern our laws and policies about sexual abuse of children. Let’s stop looking at abuse just through dewy-eyed sentimentality about children. Instead, look at abuse in terms of the hard, cold logic of practical societal survival: Children we don’t protect grow up. Those ice-cold stares from prisoners were once the hopeful glimpses of little kids. Those kids often never had a chance, yet their experiences affect our world in immeasurable ways.

I would like some researchers to conduct a massive meta-study of all the screwed-up people. All the dictators and molesters and thieves and murderers and wife-beaters. How many of these people were abused as children and never shook that trauma, and in that peculiar, agonizing human tendency, rather than see their experience as the last thing they would ever do, instead perpetuate the same kind of horrors on another? We know intuitively this is long-standing human behavior, but we seem to need more proof.

Victims can and do overcome when they have the supportive structures in place. But when they don’t or can’t move past the terrible theft of their childhood, they create a cascade of expensive woe and destruction. As Philadelphia Inquirer public health blogger Jonathan Purtle writes, people who suffer abuse are prone to many overall health problems, problems that affect nearly every aspect of our culture.

That anyone would mull over the consequences (trying to save their own pathetic skins?) of reporting a molesting priest or rapist coach shows, as Purtle says, how “few people really understand the devastating consequences of sexual abuse.” Your silence is a crime against humanity, only worsened by your effort to hide such abuse and protect any pervert.

If we thought about it like that, maybe people would get out the torches and pitchforks. However much I enjoy Scott Stein’s occasional column about people who should be killed on this site, I have trouble ideologically supporting the death penalty because of the obvious bureaucratic problems with state-administered executions. But if we viewed the scope and effect of abuse more broadly and accurately, we could certainly create better, more severe laws punishing abusers and anyone who sustains them.

We need better laws driven by a clearer mindset about the perpetuation of destruction child abuse breeds, laws that put in action the full force of the U.S. judicial machine and that help inculcate stronger collective values about abuse. I could get behind a political platform about this, framed around the simple idea that sexually abused children grow up. Then what? In Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Coriolanus, the brutal title character’s son, Young Martius, is raised in the same bloodthirsty way as his father. The child ponders a threat, saying, “A shall not tread on me./I’ll run away till I am bigger, but then I’ll fight.” Children will some day have an effect on the world. Do we want that effect to be revenge?

We share feelings of vengeance about the candy-toting scumbag trolling for child victims. But we need legal clarity about a person in a position of authority and trust with children who uses that position to find victims; that person deserves a codified level of societal wrath akin to nothing else. And if you protect those people, from walking away from a child rape to helping a molester move to a new position, you are an accomplice in creating a potential cascade of societal damage that may resonate for generations. You will be punished.

The monsters who molest children will always be the focus of our disgust. But if we see this as a crime against humanity that has unique resonant effects, maybe then anyone who protects them will receive the same level of disgust — and thus no one will ever hide this awful crime, regardless of the consequences of disclosure.

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.
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3 Responses to “Child abuse: We’re just not getting it”

  1. Aloha Scott,
    Thank you.
    “But if we viewed the scope and effect of abuse more broadly and accurately, we could certainly create better, more severe laws punishing abusers and anyone who sustains them.”
    This is so true.I have sadly known FAR too many victims of sexual child abuse and these children never heal.NEVER!I was very close with a woman who was continuously abused in her childhood til she escaped at 15 and she says despite years and years of therapy etc. there is not a day that she does not suffer.She does not expect she ever will.She is 70 years old and has had to live with this her whole life.
    Child rapists need a severe sentence.I think life would be about right,because someone who is that sick I don’t believe can ever recover.Just as their victims never will.

  2. It is a hopeless feeling to consider what humanity seems predisposed to put itself through. Since I’ve become a parent, and especially since my kids have grown through a few early childhood phases, I have had this different, disturbing, depressing view of crime and criminals.

    Think about the perpetrator of a horrible crime such as the one you’ve referenced in this article. As bad as it is (and it’s bad), I picture this monster as a sweet, innocent, hopeful five-year old. I have one of those at home. It’s almost crushing to me. I don’t believe anyone is born to be one of these monsters. It’s such a vicious, sad cycle.

    This doesn’t usually happen to me, but that’s it. I leave this thought incomplete. Too distressing; I have no answer other than to love my kids and guide the young people I impact to treat everyone well.

    It’s never enough for us humans.

  3. To consider that a single revelation of such a fact can have a snowball effect – widening the scope and prevalence of such attrocities, is just mind boggling. No sooner did the media hype over the PSU scandal die down, and now we have Syracuse jumping into the limelight.

    From cases in the past to where we are in the present day, the number of incidences is truly saddening and horrifying.

    How many cases are out there, and how many people in power are “protecting” such wrongdoers? And should we, as a society, hold those people who hide and protect such perpretrators, as equally or more liable than the actual criminals?

    After all, by staying silent, they are making themselves equally liable for the incident. The person who aids one in hiding a crime is just as responsible and I fully support the efforts to crack down and fix the issues at the roots.

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