Last week’s charges filed against five Catholic authorities for child abuse comes as no surprise to anyone who’s paid attention to the last several centuries of church history. Institutionalized pedophilia of the Catholic Church is horrible, but it isn’t the only place where kids are being abused in America.
About 2,100 allegations of sexual abuse of children are made every year in Philadelphia. Nearly 66,000 were reported nationally in 2009, but those numbers probably don’t reflect reality because of all the cases that go unreported. Of Philadelphia’s roughly 165 incidents of alleged sexual abuse each month, neighborhoods with the most cases of abuse occur in the poorest areas of the city. Logan had the most last year, with 68. The rest of North Philly, and the West, Southwest and near Northeast had anywhere from 10 to 44 cases per ZIP code.
More telling than how many and where, the vast majority of accusations, about 140 per month, are against caregivers. That could mean a parent, a family member, a teacher or a priest. Attacks from trusted sources amplify hurt and betrayal to kids, who often end up too confused or scared to speak up. Sometimes, experts say, the aftermath is worse than the attack itself, as victims deal with fear, shame or self-blame that can result in years of repression and untold consequences.
For children who do decide to come forward, the Philadelphia Children’s Alliance is there to help, providing a trained staff member to guide a child through a single interview, instead of forcing a terrified kid to retell his or her story to the police, the District Attorney’s Office, the Department of Human Services and other interested parties. “If you were sexually abused and had to be interviewed over and over, what do you think would happen?” Children’s Alliance Executive Director Chris Kirchner asked a crowd of legislators and service providers who came to a tour of the organization’s new facilities last week. Already frightened, kids can back off or even revoke their story over multiple interviews, especially if they get challenged by skeptical listeners. “Nothing’s worse than a child finding the courage to disclose only to find the system doesn’t believe them,” Kirchner says.
The Children’s Alliance sees about 80 kids a month—halfway to the organization’s goal of hearing every allegation in the city—and it is poised for greater reach with the new facilities on 15th Street tripling its capacity. However, its $1.4 million budget, funded about 50-50 from public and private sources, could be in danger with big spending cuts looming in Harrisburg and Washington. Hence the event last week, attended by various City Council members and state representatives. “We’re worried about funding,” Kirchner says, describing her organization’s budget as an investment to help kids regain normal lives. “If what we do here goes well, a child’s ultimate recovery can save resources in the long run.”
The new office features three interview rooms for children of various ages who get referred to the group by DHS or the police. The rooms are painted with stars and other designs on the walls and have low tables and chairs for the youngest kids, and each is equipped with a closed-circuit camera or two-way mirror so while forensic interviewers gently coax the kids into talking, representatives from the police and others can watch without intimidating. “They observe, they take notes, they also are provided with a DVD copy of the interview,” says Police Lt. Stephen Biello of the Special Victims Unit.
When cases move forward to prosecution, Children’s Alliance will also help the kids testify in court, where they might have to face hostile cross-examination by defense attorneys. Fortunately, the interview videos are admissible along with live testimony, giving juries a chance to see the children tell their stories in controlled environments. “If our video is really compelling, we hope that some of the questioning of the child will be mitigated,” Kirchner says.
Even for cases that don’t make it into court, just the opportunity to give an honest telling to a sympathetic ear can be a relief. Rhett Hackett, who spoke at the Children’s Alliance event last week to share his story, didn’t find that out for nearly 30 years. Now 42 and a circulation manager for the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, Hackett was 12 years old when a neighbor sexually assaulted him. He didn’t know where to turn, and afraid of the consequences of speaking up, he told nobody. Hackett kept quiet for decades, only disclosing to his future wife the horrifying events of his past. Over the years, he struggled with the weight of his secret. “I lived with total shame,” Hackett says. “I thought people would think I was a bad person.” In 2010, he finally decided to come forward after going on an all-male retreat for abuse victims and realizing he is far from alone. “When you’re in this position, you feel like you’re the only one,” he says. “But after I went public with all of this, I had people coming out of the woodwork to me.”
Now that he’s decided to speak, Hackett is going all out. “There’s not many of us that can speak to it,” he says. “The silence is what perpetrators have hid behind for so long. If nobody’s talking about it, there’s no awareness.” He’s been in the newspapers, wrote a book and appeared on Oprah last year with 200 other male adult survivors of abuse. Later in the spring, he will join in an off-Broadway play about abuse with other former victims called Lemon Meringue. “Things like that can bring awareness in a different way,” he says, trying to explain the catharsis and freedom speaking out has brought him. “Once you speak the words and let it out, it changes things. It relieves the stress that was inside you for so long.”
When adults like Hackett are willing to come forward, it’s a big help to the organization hoping to spread its message. “It’s unbelievably important,” Kirchner says referring to Hackett’s testimony. “Having adult survivors willing to describe how abuse impacted them and how it might have helped to have a program like ours is invaluable.”
For privacy reasons, the Children’s Alliance won’t use real stories from the children they serve or their families to make their case for funding to lawmakers and the media. “It’s so hard to tell our story without using actual stories,” explains Kirchner. “We don’t want to use the stories of our kids. As long as they’re kids, they can’t decide or not whether their information should be shared.”
The sheer pervasiveness of abuse makes the case that organizations like Children’s Alliance are crucial. Commonly cited statistics estimate that one in six boys and one in four girls are victims of sexual abuse before they turn 18, although more recent studies have shown a decrease in numbers. While the downward trend is encouraging, each attack still leaves behind a devastated child deserving of compassion and care on the road to healing and justice. “Our intervention is somewhat short term, but our thought is that that short period of time is critical,” Kirchner says. “If the child feels safe and supported in making that disclosure, the rest of their life is not going to be defined by this particular incident.”
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