As a victim of sexual abuse from age 11 to 17, I know my abuser stole the biggest part of my childhood, robbed me of my innocence and forever changed my life in ways that cannot be repaid or restored.
When I hear people complain that they’re tired of the ongoing press coverage of the Penn State sexual abuse scandal and ask whether it all might be a little overblown, it makes me wonder, “What will it take?”
The Penn State case has taken the national epidemic of sexual abuse against children and made it a mainstream topic – finally – for debate and dialogue throughout our country. And, this case triggers a level of outrage that should lead to overdue changes in our society’s indifference toward and tolerance of sexual abuse of children.
The simple, sobering fact is that childhood sexual abuse is rampant and needs to be addressed with changes in public policy and public education. In the Penn State case alone, consider that:
An eyewitness allegedly saw a 10-year-old boy being raped and didn’t intervene or call police.
The top coaching staff at Penn State apparently knew about these allegations but didn’t limit the abuser’s access to young boys.
The school system and the Foundation that supposedly existed to help children repeatedly allowed the alleged abuser to have time alone with the victims.
One good thing to come from this case is that it has made all of us more comfortable talking openly about this issue in schools, at dinner tables and at work places across the country. Americans are asking themselves: “What would I have done?” Would I have trusted my eyes and acted on the spot to rescue a child? Would I have jeopardized my career and the reputation of a school I loved? Would I have faced embarrassment and ridicule? Or, would I have taken the minimum steps required by law and looked the other way?
Those conversations are a good start, but they’re not enough.
If we are serious about changing our culture to reject sexual exploitation of children, we need to change our laws to demand greater, personal responsibility of every adult and institution to step up and do the right thing, even when the consequences are painful. At a minimum, we need to:
Make it clear that everyone is required to report suspected child abuse no matter what the abuser’s relationship with the child. Currently, the law in many states is murky about whether abuse must be reported if the abuser is not directly responsible for the child’s welfare and to whom it must be reported.
Increase the penalties for failure to report childhood sexual abuse. How sad that under Pennsylvania law, the penalty for failing to report childhood sexual abuse was merely a $200 fine? How much value does that place on the life and soul of a child?
End the statute of limitations for prosecution of childhood sexual abuse, as Florida did in 2010. As a victim, I can tell you there is no statute of limitations on how long it takes victims to heal. So why should abusers have the benefit of a statute of limitations to shield them from prosecution?
Let the Penn State tragedy serve as a national teaching moment. Let us change our culture to place an overarching priority on protecting children from sexual abuse. If that is the legacy from Penn State, it will mark a positive turning point, rather than a darkest day.
Lauren Book is author of “It’s OK to Tell” and founder of Lauren’s Kids, a foundation that works to fight child sexual abuse through education. For more information, visit laurenskids.org.