At a Senate hearing earlier this month, former pro hockey player Sheldon Kennedy told his story of childhood abuse by a respected coach in Canada.
"In every case of child abuse -- certainly in my own -- there are people who had a gut feeling that something was wrong," Kennedy said, "but didn't do anything about it."
The inaction of potential whistleblowers like Penn State's Mike McQueary has become a stain on society almost as great as the egregious allegations of sexual abuse ascribed to Jerry Sandusky, Bernie Fine of Syracuse and Bill Conlin of the Philadelphia Daily News. We all want 2012 to be the year for openness, but a reality check proves it may not come so easily.
The good news: State and federal lawmakers are now considering changes to existing laws about the reporting of sexual assault and rape, requiring any adult who observes or learns of these incidents to report them to police.
The bad news: New laws don't necessarily lead to understanding or action.
"We would like to see reporting laws apply to anyone and everyone who has access to a child -- parents, faculty, staff, coaches, etc.," says Rick Gipprich of the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault. But he is quick to point out that reporting laws vary from state to state, and if everyone reports something alarming, the truly problematic situations may get overlooked.
"There are some potential problems with mandating reporting," Gipprich says. "A lot of people will report things they just find suspicious."
And that's how the system gets overloaded. Police forces and courts often lack the staff and other resources to handle the volume of complaints, which often range in validity.
"That's when the investigations get shoddy," Gipprich says. "One of the things we have to consider when we think about mandated reporting is 'Why.' Are people filing a report because they inherently and morally know that what they saw was wrong, or are they afraid of getting in trouble? Of course we want the reports regardless of why they're made, but if we aren't dealing with educating people, it's a problem."
When cases become shrouded in bureaucracy, led by overworked prosecutors without the necessary resources, faith in the system gradually diminishes -- and rightfully so. Who would want to risk their reputation or that of their colleague, employer, teacher or coach just to be tangled in an endless cycle that may never reach the courtroom?
"We need to focus on the system that's already put in place when somebody does make a report," says Gipprich. "If people know it's going to work, and they aren't going to slip through the cracks, you wouldn't need to mandate reporting. The system is what's broken, and it's not about enforcing more laws."
Until we can fully staff every police force and courtroom, educating the public is the next best thing. According to TAASA, one in three girls and one in seven boys will be sexually assaulted before the age of 18. Only 10 percent of adult women report sexual assault. That number drops to four percent for men. The reporting rate is higher for children because they haven't been exposed to the cultural taboo associated with sexual violence. It takes an educated public -- from teachers and parents to coaches and administrators -- to eventually create a safe place for victims to tell the truth.
"Domestic or family violence has a tendency to be brought more to the forefront than sexual violence," Gipprich says. "There is this element of secret and shame when it comes to victims of sexual abuse. The nature of the word rape is ugly. It conjures ugly thoughts."
Those ugly thoughts are what often keep victims and even witnesses silent. Allegations against Sandusky and Fine both suggest the men's wives knew of some of these incidents. Kelley Blanchet, Conlin's niece and one of four people accusing him of sexual assault, told the Philadelphia Inquirer her parents knew of her abuse, but opted against going to the police. Instead, they asked Conlin to stay away from their children.
"It is a common thing for people to say 'It's none of my business, we don't want to accuse anyone or bring shame on the family,'" Gipprich says, "especially when it comes to accusing someone in a high position. So these things become steeped in secrecy, leading to isolation for the victims. They feel like 'There aren't other people like me.'"
Statutes of limitation have been another obstacle. Once victims grow up and fully realize the wrongs committed against them, it's often too late. So while alleged perpetrators like Sandusky are already guilty in the court of public opinion, the legal process -- and road to resolution -- is just getting started.
So while lawmakers try to fix the national nightmare, there's no guarantee the very personal nightmare of sex abuse will ever be prevented.
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