June 19, 2018
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Believing the unbelievable about child sex abuse

By Dr. Erik Steele

The first person who wanted to have sex with me was my favorite high school teacher. He invited me to go sailing overnight on his boat, then tried to get into my bunk and shorts. At 17, I was old enough to successfully say, “No,” but young enough to be stunned and embarrassed into subsequent silence, so never told school authorities or my parents what happened.

That little monster of a memory got called up out of my emotional closet by recent child abuse scandals in my community, Penn State and Syracuse University. In each of these cases, prominent men may have been able to sexually abuse children for years despite some adults around them having hints that something bad was going on.

Much has changed since the days I struggled to reconcile what I knew about that teacher with his wonderful public image. Most parents, some children, and some organizations are more vigilant about abuse. Law enforcement officials are far more likely to prosecute it vigorously. What remains unchanged, however, is what was clear to me 38 years ago; the protective ocean in which the sharks of abuse successfully swim is the disbelief and denial of adults around them that a respected friend or colleague could be sexually abusing children right under their noses.

That disbelief is part of what causes those adults to fail to respond to red flags of possible abuse. Most of us struggle to even think of the possibility that a revered teacher or coach or pastor would abuse a child, and don’t wish to deal with the possibility. We therefore minimize evidence that supports an appalling conclusion, maximize evidence that suggests things are probably fine, and see red flags as perhaps pale yellow if we see them at all. And if it’s yellow, do we really need to do anything?

Our brains work in ways that promote this, even when we know better.
New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote recently of the psychology of normalcy bias, which causes us to act as though abnormal things are normal if the abnormal makes us uncomfortable. He explained how the psychology of motivated blindness prompts us not to see what is not in our interest to see. Our tendency to disbelieve may also be complicit with organizational normalcy bias and motivated blindness, which may in turn promote organizational disbelief and denial.

That all means we must take specific steps to change our own behavior if we are to deprive the sharks of water, and stop their abuse early.

We must stop denying that people we personally know and trust are capable of sexually abusing children, because a rare few of them are.

Related, we have to stop thinking that doers of good deeds, and respected community leaders with everything to lose by exposure, are not capable of sexual crimes against children. Indeed, it is often just such people who get away with it for decades.

Those of us seeing colleagues or friends use their professional roles to develop oddly close relationships with youths must overcome normalcy bias, then stop assuming it is enough to report our suspicions to just anyone. That reporting must ultimately be to law enforcement or child protective service authorities. That is true not only because sexual abuse is a crime, but because non-law enforcement organizations and people cannot reliably investigate the possibility that a person working for or with them may have committed a [usually] private crime involving children.

In the days since news of these abuses in my hometown and the two universities emerged I have been wondering what I should do with my secret. That teacher, if alive, is in his 70s, almost certainly not teaching, but almost certain to have abused more boys than this one. The question for me, then, and for all of you when your day to bear witness to the victimizing of the innocent comes, is will we stand up, or will we stand by? Unless we prepare for that day, and know we will have to overcome many personal and other hurdles to doing the right thing, chances are good that we too will stand by while frightful crimes are committed against children.

Erik Steele, D.O., a physician in Bangor, is chief medical officer of Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems.

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