Can an entire town come together to protect a childhood sexual abuser – actually protect the abuser – not the child?
This question may seem foolish or rhetorical at best but one look at some recent events tends to highlight the extent to which some communities go to protect the abusers in their midst.
Rachael Denhollander, the first to come forward and accuse Dr. Larry Nassar of abuse while he allegedly cared for gymnasts, swimmers and Olympic athletes over many years had to, in her words, build an army to take on this abuser and his supporters.
Ultimately, over 150 women athletes, many of them Olympians, confronted Nassar in court. Denhollander was not believed initially. It took some time, Olympic effort and commitment to bring him to justice but the persistence paid off.
The bravery that Denhollander and her “army” displayed caused the United States Olympic Committee to force the entire U.S. Gymnastics Committee to resign, and the President of Michigan State University to step down. A special prosecutor has been appointed to look into the possibility that the sports departments at University of Michigan had been covering for Nassar and also for several accusations against their football and basketball teams.
This is not an unheard of situation. There have been other cases where communities protect abusers at the expense of children who are victims. Recall the Jerry Sandusky Penn State scandal. Sandusky, the assistant Football coach, was known to have been abusing young boys for years. He was even reported to his Head coach, Joe Paterno and University administration but for years the entire community at Penn State looked away or worse, rationalized that he was a charitable fellow; after all, he organized and ran The Second Mile charity organization. Still for at least 15 years he was sexually abusing young boys using his football connections and his charity to groom and abuse. He has some protectors still even though he is in jail.
It is not unusual that an organization will work hard to shield its reputation and cover over all negative reports, especially heinous ones. The institution is more important than the individual it serves is often the motto for this action. Still there is a great deal to be learned from those who cover up. While Sandusky sits in prison Penn State has so far paid over $100 million in compensation to his victims. Larry Nassar was issued a sentence that puts him in jail for what amounts to a death sentence. And, the University where he worked and the Olympic Committee’s he was involved in are just starting to feel the pain that covering up causes. These, however, are limited sports and university communities.
What happens when an actual neighborhood community has a terrible history of responding to accusations of abuse? A community that has never actually taken up the struggle to confront and isolate childhood sexual abusers from its midst? The answer is simple. Abusers tend to gather there as a last refuge. And in their way, they will go on to charm and groom the entire neighborhood and the community it represents. There they find new victims. They get involved in youth activities as teachers, sports coaches, camp counselors and go on to find vulnerable children to attack. When their victims finally come forward, when police are finally called in to investigate, these communities far too often rally around the predator. They dispute charges. They help hire attorneys to represent the abusers; attorneys known for their ability to intimidate protective services workers, and the families that support the victims in their quest for justice. They write articles for newspapers in support of the abusers bending facts to make the victims look like false accusers.
In the Jewish world there are several such communities both in the United States and Israel. We cannot change the fact that they currently exist. What we can do is build an army, like Rachael Denhollander did, to create a new approach that will enlighten those resistant to dealing appropriately with childhood predators rather than defend them. This army will rebut false defenses and educate disbelievers to the reality that abusers exist, they prey on children in subtle ways that make them seem to be kind and caring, the tool that they all use to groom, and this army will stand up for proper investigations and jail sentences.