Experts say 2012 was a year of unparalleled justice for child sex abuse victims, but whether the string of high-profile convictions will translate into a turning point for juvenile safety remains to be seen.
The year’s headlines heralded the criminal convictions of former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky, Monsignor William Lynn of the Catholic Church’s Philadelphia Archdiocese and ultra-Orthodox Jewish therapist Nechemya Weberman, a prominent figure in New York’s Satmar Hasidic sect.
Sandusky, 68, was sentenced to spend the rest of his life behind bars for raping and molesting 10 boys, some in the campus football showers. Lynn, 61, was ordered to prison for up to six years for covering up for pedophile priests. Weberman, 54, faces up to 25 years’ imprisonment when he is sentenced on Jan. 9 for sexually abusing a girl during counseling sessions.
Each conviction hinged on the testimony of victims brave enough to shatter years of silence surrounding the abuse. Each verdict was reached by a jury determined to decide fairly in the shadow of a revered institution that, at best, ignored the crimes, sometimes for years.
“2012 is a landmark in the drive to reduce and deter community-based abuse,” said Marci Hamilton, a law professor at Yeshiva University and an advocate for victims of clergy sex crimes.
“The key here is modern-day courage,” Hamilton said. “It took extraordinary courage for survivors to break ranks from their communities and accuse those inside the community.”
Decades of secretiveness have shrouded child sex abuse within institutions that turned a blind eye, said David Clohessy, director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).
One development encouraging victims to come forward today is more women in law enforcement and criminal justice who may seem more approachable, experts say. Another is a growing acceptance of homosexuality, which could help ease the victims’ humiliation, and the idea that survivors with calamitous lives may nevertheless be telling the truth, experts say.