A national furor over sexual misconduct by college athletic coaches may offer at least one collateral benefit: Experts say hidden victims are being stirred to step forward and press charges against sports and athletic mentors, thereby protecting others from abuse.
“These incidents have bolstered victims’ feelings that there is credibility to what happened to them,” said Mary Koss, co-editor of two volumes for the American Psychological Association titled, “Violence Against Women and Children.”
Two recent Arizona cases appear to fit that pattern: A longtime faculty member with Brophy College Preparatory was fired amid accusations that he molested students at the Phoenix school years ago. And an assistant football coach at Show Low High School was placed on leave while police investigate allegations of misconduct with a female student.
Those cases surfaced in the past few weeks amid a scandal involving former Penn State University defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, who is accused of sexually abusing numerous young boys in a youth foundation he created. Sandusky, who was arrested again on Wednesday after two more boys stepped forward and said they had been sexually assaulted in the past, has said he is innocent.
The Sandusky affair was followed by the firing of Syracuse University assistant basketball coach Bernie Fine involving allegations that he sexually abused ball boys. Fine, who also has denied accusations, has not been charged criminally. Although prosecutors deemed two of his accusers credible, the statute of limitations in both cases had expired.
Ernie Allen, president at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said there is no available data to confirm a surge in sexual-abuse reports, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the Penn State and Syracuse incidents prompted other victims to step forward.
In the past month, in addition to the two Arizona cases:
Two teachers in Riverside County, Calif., were arrested in unrelated incidents after being accused of relations with high-school girls.
In Charleston, S.C., a youth coach and teacher was arrested on suspicion of abusing numerous boys.
In Huntington Beach, Calif., a youth soccer coach was charged with molesting an 8-year-old boy.
Although such stories routinely appear in the media, sexual-abuse experts said victim accounts seem to have spiked in recent weeks.
“I think it does embolden those who have been victimized,” said Victor Vieth, director of the National Child Protection Training Center.
Allen said sex crimes against children are reported only a third of the time because witnesses and victims are reluctant to file complaints unless there is compelling evidence.
“We should never be shocked whether it’s a coach, a baby-sitter, a youth-group leader or a teacher,” he said. “This remains a crime of hidden victims. Each child believes they are the only one, and each child believes it’s their fault.”
Charlie Taylor, a Tucson man who was molested by an Episcopal priest years ago, said incessant media accounts revived memories and anxieties. “All those feelings are bubbling up,” Taylor said. “There is no question that people are coming out of the woodwork because of what happened at Penn State. … I think it’s a good thing.”
Emily Cordo, managing attorney for Sexual Assault Legal Services and Assistance in Seattle, said publicity about sexual abuse can either stimulate or deter reporting of crimes, depending on how victims are treated by the media.
If accusers are demonized, as occurred when women made allegations against NBA star Kobe Bryant and International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, other victims are likely to remain silent, she said. They cannot overcome feelings of powerlessness and shame, and they are silenced by fears that they will be disbelieved or re-victimized for accusing a person of stature, such as a coach.
However, Cordo said, if accusers are treated with dignity, as occurred for the most part at Penn State, other victims may be motivated to come forward.
Koss, a regent’s professor at the University of Arizona’s public-health college, said the Penn State saga is typical of molestation cases because it remained concealed for years.
Yet it also is exceptional because, once allegations became public, there were dramatic and immediate consequences for those considered responsible: Legendary football coach Joe Paterno and university President Graham Spanier both were fired for not being more aggressive in handling earlier reports of alleged abuse.
“We saw the same thing happen with the Catholic Church scandals,” Koss said. “But those cases took so long to build. This time, important people lost their jobs for not handling it right. … From a victim’s perspective, I do think it’s made them feel that something will happen and they’ll be exposing their deepest secrets for a real purpose.”
Koss said it is especially significant that Paterno and Spanier suffered immediate consequences for perceived moral lapses in dealing with molestation cases, rather than for criminal violations.
“I’m hoping that it represents a paradigm shift” for society, she said.
David Lisak, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston, said sexual abuse involving prominent sports figures has helped diminish the shame of victimization, especially among males who are less likely to report crimes.
Lisak said big-name athletes such as cyclist Greg LeMond and NHL star Theo Fleury have gone public, and both serve on the board of 1in6.org, an Internet support center for male abuse victims.
“That blazes a trail and frees up other men who decide to come forward,” he said.
Other victim advocates said that while high-profile cases are tragic for those directly involved, they may offer a positive outcome for others if average people become more aware.