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Lifelong Scars

'Victims see themselves as damaged goods,' says a therapist who has treated adults molested as children

June 14, 2004
By LISA O'NEILL HILL / The Press-Enterprise

Mark Serrano suffers anxiety attacks when adults get too close to his children. Deborah Hardeman feels her stomach churn when she smells "Old Spice." Debbie White tried to kill herself.

All were robbed of their childhoods, innocence and self-esteem by people they trusted. All were sexually molested decades ago and struggle with the consequences.

Each was abused repeatedly. Not one told anyone what was happening, which experts say is typical and illustrates a larger problem: Child sexual abuse is drastically underreported and believed to be much more widespread than any statistics or studies can show.

By conservative estimates, one in five girls and one in 10 boys will be sexually victimized before reaching adulthood, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children in Virginia. That includes children who are sexually abused by strangers, relatives and family friends.

The increasing popularity of the Internet has given predators a new way to reach potential victims: About one out of every five children online is approached in a sexual way, and of those, only 25 percent tell their parents, according to the center.

Perpetrators include parents, teachers, coaches, clergy, even peace officers.

A former Riverside police officer, Adam James Brown, has been charged with sexual abuse of boys in Riverside and Wisconsin. Brown, who remains in federal custody, is among 21 men arrested in connection with a large child-sex and Internet-pornography ring. He is accused of traveling to a rural town in Wisconsin to have sex with young boys. Authorities said another defendant was paid to organize the liaisons and sold Internet images of children engaged in sex acts.

Brown has pleaded not guilty to a count of crossing state lines to engage in a sexual act with a minor.

The impact of these kinds of crimes metastasizes, scarring victims for years and leaving their parents and siblings shrouded in guilt.

"We just feel like we failed her in protecting her," said the 33-year-old aunt of a Riverside girl who was molested and kidnapped by her father's roommate.

"I think it's important that people understand there's a direct victim and all the indirect victims who have to help that person get through it."

Like the other victims, Hardeman said the long-term abuse she suffered at a young age affected every part of her life.

"I still can't believe how my life has turned out," said Hardeman, 46, of Riverside. "I'm never going to let anybody cross those boundaries again."

The abuse affected her judgment, she said. It took her years to realize she sought out people who treated her badly.

Therapists say this is common, that the scars of sexual abuse can be difficult to heal.

"Basically, it affects every aspect of their adult lives - cognitively, emotionally, interpersonally, physically," said Ann Pultz Kramer, a Moreno Valley marriage-and-family therapist who has treated victims of sexual abuse. "Psychologically, their self-esteem, self-image and identity are impaired. Victims see themselves as damaged goods."

Suppressed trauma

Serrano, 40, built his life around suppressing the trauma of sexual assaults he says were committed by his parish priest in a New Jersey rectory. He did not tell anyone what had happened until years later.

"He invested a great deal of time in stripping me of my instincts," said Serrano, a father of four who lives in northern Virginia.

"He got me into one-on-one encounters where he methodically built my confidence and a bond of secrecy between us. He disabled my mind so I didn't even debate with myself whether I should go call for help."

The priest had a robust personality, a wonderful sense of humor and easy access to children. He liked to take the children fishing and had them sleep over at the rectory on the eve of the trips, Serrano said. He said the priest had special talks with him and showered him with gifts and praise.

"He made me feel like I was 10 feet tall, like I was a uniquely special child who was the center of his attention and affection."

Serrano said the priest first showed him pornographic magazines and videos under the pretext of educating the then-9-year-old boy about sex. He gradually built up to sexual abuse, which Serrano said continued until he was 16.

"He was a master of manipulation. He was literally an evil genius dressed in priest's clothing. He didn't just fool me. He didn't just fool my parents. He fooled an entire community. Because of his position of authority, he wasn't questioned."

Serrano said his mind would drift as he was being molested.

"The trauma was too great. I recall it as if I was looking down from the scene. It's a coping mechanism," he said

The priest's breath smelled like vodka and orange juice, like the screwdriver drink he favored. To this day, the smell of alcohol on someone's breath reminds Serrano of the abuse.

After each episode of abuse, Serrano would get on his bicycle and flee. "I would rush from the scene as quickly as possible, pedaling as quickly as I could to erase the memory," he said.

Unable to cope, he became a long-distance runner. He dove into emotionally dependent relationships with girls. He worked hard in school.

He said he did not realize crimes had been committed against him until he was 20 and read a newspaper story about a priest who had been convicted of molesting a boy.

Until that point, "I knew deep in my heart it was wrong and it was bizarre and it was weird, I just didn't know it was criminal."

Serrano reported the abuse to his bishop, but nothing was done, he said.

Ten years ago, Serrano decided to take matters into his own hands: He hired a private detective to find the priest, to see if he was still molesting children.

Accompanied by his parents, Serrano knocked on the priest's door. His father wore a hidden microphone.

Serrano said he got the confirmation he sought when the priest opened the door. He saw two recliner chairs, just like the ones he had been in when he was molested.

"It was a powerful moment in my life, because I was in control of the encounter. I felt like I was in a position of power and he was not. I felt disgust, strength and empowerment."

The priest was never prosecuted, but Serrano sued the Catholic Church and settled. As part of the settlement, he signed a confidentiality agreement. He broke the pact two years ago when he told his story to The New York Times.

"Silence was probably the worst condition I could have placed on me. I delayed my own healing for 17 years. Silence and secrecy are toxic for a victim of sexual abuse," said Serrano, now a board member of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a national organization that speaks out against abuse by clergy members.

Now, Serrano says he is liberated by sharing his story and says he hopes he will help others by doing so.

However, he still struggles with the aftermath of the abuse.

"I suffer anxiety attacks today when adults try to build a connection or play with my children. I'm very mistrusting of people in positions of authority, people who have a natural role in my children's lives," Serrano said.

"My parents weren't at fault for my abuse, but it happened on their watch. Surely there were breakdowns. I'm trying to learn from those lessons so my kids are never harmed on my watch."

Normal only on the outside

White, who spoke on condition that her married name not be used, said she was molested by her stepfather starting when she was 4.

"It was such a traumatic thing," said the 45-year-old Riverside woman. "I remember saying that it hurts. He would just ssshhh me and say 'It's OK.' "

She said the abuse always happened at night, when her mother, a waitress, was at work.

"I never made a sound, ever. ... When it was over, he would ... send me to bed. I never said a word, that is how bizarre it is."

The stepfather strongly smelled of cologne, a scent that haunts her still.

"My husband cannot wear a lot of cologne, because I'll gag and I'll physically throw up," she said.

From the outside, White's family seemed ideal, she said. They played cards and board games together at night and went on camping trips.

The older she got, the more aggressive her stepfather became, she said. And as she matured, four other male relatives began to sexually abuse her, she said.

"This is the way life was. I didn't think, 'I have to get out of here.' I never thought, 'This is so weird,' " she said.

"I always told myself, 'I'm never getting married. I'm never having children.' It was so subtle. People would look at me, and I'd be so normal.

"On the outside, I was very normal. On the inside, I felt very dirty, very discarded, very used. I felt very damaged."

White's stepfather died when she was 13. She didn't cry at the funeral.

As she grew older, White said, she could not understand why she had a hard time connecting with people, why she couldn't feel close.

The magnitude of what had happened hit her only after she had children. She went through a severe depression.

"I would just beat myself up. I couldn't tell you what I was upset at. I had a good life. Everything looked so good from the outside. I felt like I couldn't protect my children. I would just sit at the foot of the bed and sob. My energy level was gone. I didn't even know why I was depressed at this point."

She tried to kill herself.

"I felt my family was so much better without me. I didn't understand why I felt damaged until I came to the realization that my family had taken my trust away," she said.

"Forget the physical rape. They literally rape you of your trust, your boundaries, your sense of OK. I think the emotional rape far outweighs the physical."

To this day, she trusts no one with her children. "Do I trust my husband 100 percent? No, I do not.

"I'm still reminding myself to get up every morning ... This is something I have to live with. This is all inward. Nothing you see explains the way I feel."

A split life

Hardeman, of Riverside, said she was 6 years old when a man she trusted first rubbed her back and called her his "little baby girl." He told her he loved her. He bought her pretty dresses and new backpacks.

Her life is divided into two parts: the happy, upper middle-class childhood she remembers before the abuse, and everything else.

The first episode occurred at the home of the man and his wife. Hardeman fell asleep on their couch. She felt somebody place a blanket over her.

"I opened my eyes and it was him," she said. "He smiled and said, 'I don't want you to get cold.' He kissed me on the cheek and said, 'Go back to sleep.' " He pushed her down when she tried to sit up, she said, and told her everything was OK.

"He began touching me ... I was crying the whole time. It freaked me out. He said, 'You don't have to cry.' He said, 'I love you, that's why I'm doing this.' "

The man always smelled of Old Spice.

"To this day, I can't stand it," she said.

She did not tell anyone what had happened, and wouldn't for decades.

"I felt like if I said anything, it was going to be my fault, like I caused it," she said.

Once outgoing, she became withdrawn.

"I don't understand why my parents didn't notice something. I knew I was different," she said. "Every time I would get upset at him, he would say, 'If you tell your daddy, he's going to think you're dirty and he won't love you.' "

When she was 12, she became pregnant. The molester was the father of her child, she said. Her parents never asked who the father was, she said, but forced her to give the baby up for adoption.

She wet the bed until she was 13. She failed gym in junior high and high school, too embarrassed to change in front of other people. She became promiscuous and thought boys didn't care about her if they didn't want sex.

She dropped out of school and ran away from home, searching, she said, for something or someone.

Hardeman said the abuse stopped when she was 17 and became pregnant a second time. She said she does not know whether the second child's father is the molester or a teenage boyfriend. When Hardeman's parents found out she was pregnant again, they sent her to Illinois to live with a relative, she said.

Hardeman said she told no one about the molestation until something her husband did during sex reminded her of her abuse. She said she freaked out and beat her husband until she collapsed sobbing. Then, she told him. She later told her brother and mother. She said her mother dismissed her, telling her it was all in the past. Hardeman has never tried to prosecute her abuser.

Experts say the amount of support a victim gets from family can make all the difference.

"The most important factor in recovery is the degree of support and belief they get from their really closest support system," said David Finkelhor, founder and director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.

Finkelhor said how well a child recovers from sexual abuse depends on a number of factors, including whether intercourse and threats occurred, whether the victims had their photographs circulated and whether they have positive psychological resources.

Hardeman said she only recently has come to understand the impact of the abuse.

"It was this one thing that completely changed the way I looked at things in life," she said.

"All those years I was in trouble ... and my parents were disappointed in me, that was all him."

Hardeman said she is now moving on with her life. She recently aced exams to become a long-haul truck driver. She's proud of that accomplishment. Finally, she knows she deserves happiness.

"I know it wasn't my fault. I was 6 years old," she said. "But for many years, I thought it was my fault."

Reach Lisa O'Neill Hill at (909) 368-9462 or [email protected]

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests