An eye-opening experience

I guess I’ve known for quite a while what the statistics show in regard to child sexual abuse, but never has that figure hit home the way it did after I attended a Poynter Institute seminar in Florida regarding a crime that is now being termed an epidemic.

According to research by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused by the time they reach the age of 18. Pondering these numbers, I think most of the 35 or so people at the seminar looked around the room, wondering how those statistics translated to the group. I can honestly say each and every person in that room has been affected by child sexual abuse, partly because of the figures and partly because it was a room mostly comprised of reporters who cover crime and courts.

What makes those numbers even scarier is that it is believed only 12 percent of child sexual abuse is reported to authorities.

While attending the seminar, it didn’t take long to realize I was from the smallest media venue. I was among reporters who have newsroom populations of 30 to 200, in cities like San Francisco, Calif., Salt Lake City, Utah, St. Louis, Mo., Las Vegas, Nev. and Phoenix, Ariz. There was a reporter there from Puerto Rico, a freelancer from Alaska and a health correspondent from the Times of London.

I was surprised to learn I had been chosen to attend the event after applying for a grant to do so through the McCormick Foundation. I wondered, after seeing some of the large papers and news stations represented at the seminar, if I would have much to contribute and realistically have the same experience in covering child sex abuse that those from the larger venues had gained.

Sadly, I do.

In the eight years I’ve covered crime for the Daily Globe, there have been numerous reports of child rape and abuse that cross my desk. Each one is heart-breaking, and making the decisions on which to cover and which to leave alone has been a tough call on my part. How do we educate the public if they aren’t aware of how prevalent this crime is, but how do I safely shield the identity of a child who has been raped by a parent, step-parent or family member if charges are filed and the name of the accused is released?

It was interesting to note that all of the reporters in the room struggle with the same issue, as well as what language to use. One of the speakers, a sex abuse victim advocate, wants the media to use more graphic language in an effort to make a big point. Forget about people getting sick over their breakfast, she told us. People need to know.

I agreed with some of her statements, but not all of them. An attorney from Boston, Mass., she wasn’t as informed as she thought about every law in every state. Her points, though valid, were not always justifiable.

I have had people whine about wanting more details in some criminal sexual conduct cases, and I tend to find them creepy and sad. Most people go the opposite direction and don’t want to know, or simply can’t handle the truth. I find the ones who can’t handle it rather sad also. If a grown-up can’t handle reading a sanitized version of such a crime, how are they supposed to turn around and talk to others, especially their own children, about what to guard against, what to look for and what to report? How can a child tell a parent that something happened if the words for basic body parts are treated as secret, dirty or something that makes everyone uncomfortable?

Only about 10 percent of child sex abuse cases involve a stranger. Most perpetrators are family, friends, acquaintances. Coaches, youth leaders, daycare providers, teachers – they come from all walks of life, and are sometimes the respected names in the community. Most habitual offenders find ways to keep themselves surrounded by children, like Jerry Sandusky.

One of the most interesting quotes from the seminar, in my opinion, came from Sara Ganim of the Patriot-News in Pennsylvania. Ganim, who broke the original Sandusky story after a long, difficult investigation, was asked how hard it was to handle the sad facts of child sex abuse and rape.

“I’ve written the Sandusky story a couple of dozen times,” she said.

I know what she means, as did every reporter in the room. We’ve all written the story of an adult in an authority position preying on children. Even here, in Smalltown, U.S.A., child sex abuse exists.

Until we are all ready to “handle it,” it will keep happening.

A representative from the Center for Communicable Diseases called child sex abuse an epidemic – one that touches big cities and small towns, and again, will affect one in four girls and one in six boys before they turn 18.

Eye opening, isn’t it?