In Praise of the Witness

Penn State students
According to an article in Time magazine, “In recent decades, rates of sexual abuse have actually plunged. Child molestation by casual acquaintances and sexual abuse by caregivers decreased 61% from 1992 to 2009, according to the Crimes against Children Research Center
 at the University of New Hampshire.”

The researchers credit awareness, prevention, and prosecution. People and organizations are more vigilant than they used to be.

Vigilance creates real and significant results, a 61% decrease from 1992 to 2009.

That means fewer victims. Less pain. Less trauma. Fewer ruined lives and ruined careers.

All because victims and their families/advocates/witnesses/supporters have stepped forward and said, “This is what happened to me” or “this is what I saw/heard.”

Cases of abuse have plunged because people spoke up. By speaking up, they helped prevent others from becoming victims.

In spite of the pressure to stay silent, some people stepped up. In spite of knowing that others would call them liars, question their character or say that they were asking for it somehow, would judge the way they’ve lived their lives, would slander them and their families, criticize them for making noise about it, criticize them for waiting so long to say something, or for not saying enough, or for saying too much. In spite of knowing that speaking up would have negative effects on their lives in the short-run and in the long. In spite of knowing that they would be accused of having ulterior motives for speaking up, would be accused of trying to hurt the abuser for their own gain. In spite of knowing that everything would change.

That’s Courage.

Think about the grown men in the Penn State case who were faced with this kind of discomfort and backed off. They decided that the victims didn’t need help. They decided that it couldn’t have been so bad, that the abuser was one of them and so they “had his back” and would keep it between themselves. They decided to tell the abuser not to make them uncomfortable by doing it in their own territory and they decided to look away and pretend that if they didn’t see it then it meant that he had stopped.

Think about how easy and normal it is to have that response when faced with something so personally uncomfortable. Think about how easy it is to identify with the nice but authoritative abuser and be sympathetic and maybe even forgiving because he’s so darn human and just made a mistake.

Abusers can be so nice! If they are in a position of authority people look up to them. They can be charismatic, jovial, funny, generous, gregarious, and friendly. They can look so innocent, yet assertive. They are likable, empathetic, and kind. They might even have candy but that would be the least of their offerings. Praise, sympathy, belonging and approval can be so much sweeter than candy.

Serial abusers are usually surrounded by people who have experienced all of these things and think the abuser is wonderful.

Sometimes people step forward and speak up. It might make you uncomfortable but remember that where there is one victim there may be many more, both in the past and in the future. Remember that the friendlier you feel toward the accused the more you need to guard against refusing to hear the witness. Remember how hard it is to speak up. Remember how easy it is to disbelieve the speaker.

Remember that turning away may mean future victims.

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