I was sexually assaulted three times before I was 20. Here’s why I never told my family or the police.
As I shoved him off and opened the car door to get out, I saw I had left a smear of my pink lipstick on his clerical collar. Again, I told no one. It was embarrassing, revolting, and I had no desire to make accusations against a congressman, especially one I admired.
Maybe because I grew up in a chaotic household, knowing adults were unpredictable and unreliable, none of these incidents had an innocence-destroying effect. When I spoke to David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center, he understood why silence was my instinctive reaction. “Kids have an intuition this might be taken as a big deal by adults, and are not sure they want it to be. It means confronting the adult who did it. For you, it involved your friend. What are you going to get out of it? You escaped, you feel it won’t happen again. You’re not thinking it will happen to someone else. From a cost-benefit analysis, it makes a lot of sense not to disclose.”
I’d like to think that we’re now in a different world as far as the reporting of child sexual abuse is concerned. But one of the most shocking things about the Sandusky case, as my colleague Emily Bazelon points out, is that the children who decided not to speak were too often right in suspecting that adults just wouldn’t believe them.
Fortunately for me, my perpetrators were neither rapists nor the kinds of hardcore predators who pick children who are too young, or too vulnerable, to escape. Finkelhor told me, “They had what they perceived to be some sexual need and thought there was an opportunity that didn’t have a lot of risks and took advantage.” Maybe my cousin just wanted to explore, though he was old enough to know what he was doing was wrong. But what did Diane’s father and Father Drinan expect would happen? That I would say I wanted to give them what they weren’t getting? I now think they each had an urge rather than a plan, and each was going to satisfy it, no matter the consequences. Not that there were any consequences.
But all of the incidents I’ve described were crimes. Because the events took place in Massachusetts, I talked to an attorney there, Carmen Durso, who has brought suits on behalf of many victims of pedophile priests. He said if these incidents happened today each would be a potential case of indecent assault and battery. (The state has harsher penalties if the victim is under age 14.) Because these would be sexual crimes, a conviction would lead to the defendant being put on the sex-offender registry.
Durso thought a prosecution of these one-time events would be a long shot, however. He cited a statement by the current district attorney of Suffolk County that, of 1,000 child sex abuse cases reported to their office each year, they only prosecute 200. “It’s likely what you described would be looked upon both then and now as relatively minor in the face of reasonable doubt a jury might have,” Durso said. He added that it’s nonetheless vital to make a complaint. “The likelihood is that the person who has done it will do it again.”
I know that speaking up can work. In my role as Dear Prudence, I fielded letters recently from two young women who had disturbing encounters with older men—one with a math tutor, the other with the father of a friend. In each case the men were getting a sexual thrill but also clearly trying to keep within the law. I said the police should be called because sometimes it’s the accumulation of evidence that makes a case. Indeed, in the follow-up letters I got, it turned out that several victims had already reported these men.
If my 16-year-old daughter had experienced what I did, of course I would want her to tell me. I would also act. A teenager who tries to molest his cousin should at the very least get intervention. A father who touches the breasts of his daughter’s friend should be reported to the police. But as much as I hate to say it, I’m not so sure I would advise her, if she were a young adult, to report a groping by a powerful man. As we’ve seen too many times, coming forward in a case like that opens a woman up to character evisceration. Father Drinan died in 2007, and I’m aware that I’ll be assailed for besmirching the memory of a distinguished man.
Because in each case I was able to push back immediately and end the abuse, these became isolated incidents. I was not traumatized. In some way I was even empowered—I was able to handle these bigger, older males. But now, all these years later, I’m left to wonder about Diane’s father: Did he ever touch anyone else?
Read a statement from the family of Father Robert Drinan about Emily Yoffe’s article “My Molesters.”