It’s unfortunate that it takes national headlines to draw attention to a damaging and life-altering crime that goes on every day in every county, city and neighborhood. It’s especially unfortunate when one considers that the epidemic tragedy of sexual abuse occurs in the lives of children, our most vulnerable citizens. 

By now the statistics are familiar. On average, 1 in 5 children will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday. I know of no other epidemic affecting 20 percent of our children that would be allowed to continue to be hidden away in the dark, uncomfortable corners of our collective consciousness, thus ensuring its continuation.

What will it take to end our culture of tolerance and denial of the reality of sexual abuse? Will the ever-expanding horror of the Penn State story of alleged abuse be enough? 

How many more lives will be sacrificed before we wake up and are willing to set aside our visceral discomfort to become informed and take action? 

When will we begin to understand that the protection of all children is an adult responsibility upheld by the larger community?

A life sentence for victims

As a psychotherapist whose specialty is working with adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse, I witness the lifelong effects of sexual abuse in childhood. The victimized boys in the Penn State story are not nameless and faceless, unfortunate boys — they are the men (and women) whom I sit with daily. 

Each survivor’s story reveals the failure — often many times over — of adults who shirked their duty to protect the child, of adults who looked away in discomfort or remained blind to the signs of abuse in a culture that refuses to wake up to the reality of the sexual abuse of children. 

Bearing witness to this pain of betrayal that survivors must come to reckon with renders it impossible for me to hide behind a cool, professional façade of neutrality. On a human level, I ache for the wounded child within the adult whose world was irrevocably shattered by an adult world that failed to protect their innocence and vulnerability. 

I don’t know what the future will hold for those who look away, but I do know what the future holds for the children who were unprotected. 

On the average, those convicted of sexually abusing a child serve less than a year of jail time, and 32 to 46 percent serve no jail time at all. Contrast this to lifetime of disabled trust, shame, fear, traumatic memories and flashbacks to which the abused child is sentenced. 

To be clear, the effects of sexual abuse in childhood do not diminish with time nor do abused children “get over it” or outgrow the effects of abuse. To make matters worse, there is precious, little awareness or support for the adults who bear the scars of sexual abuse in childhood. The children whose need to be protected was unseen become adults whose need for support remains invisible to a culture that prefers the cozy comfort of denial.

The wake-up call

We can do better; we must do better. The evidence is in. 

We know the ramifications of remaining silent, of not fulfilling our individual and cultural responsibility. More abuse occurs, more children are hurt, more perpetrators are allowed to hide in the broad daylight of our negligence, and adults who were abused as children remain hidden. 

To be silent bystanders is to be complicit in allowing the sexual abuse of children in our community to thrive. 

To quote a bumper sticker from the ‘70s, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” Let the sickening Penn State story be the wake-up call that is long overdue. 

Let us be the community whose justified and empowering outrage at our cultural state of denial and silence brings about change that creates zero tolerance for abuse of any kind perpetrated against children. 

Begin to pay attention; become informed about your responsibility, as an adult, in creating a community safe from child sexual abuse; and support those who provide care for children and adults victimized. 

Let us be the generation of engaged and informed adults who make this world a safer place for our children.

JANICE PALM, MA, LMHC, is the executive director of Shepherd’s Counseling Services (www.shepherdstherapy.org) in Seattle.