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.
“We’re learning that victims inevitably seem troubled and flawed. It’s very rare that someone can be sexually violated as a child and live a charmed, perfect life,” Clohessy said.
Heightened publicity has also drawn out victims who now know they are not alone, said David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.
“The climate is so much better for survivors than it was a decade ago when they felt isolated and like a freak,” Finkelhor said.
“Almost everyone knows this happens to other people now. It’s not nearly as stigmatizing,” he said.
The momentum in prosecuting child sex abuse cases depends upon many factors, including whether state legislatures broaden the time frame for victims seeking justice, a move under discussion in Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
By the time a child victim is able to confront an assailant, a state’s statute of limitations may prevent prosecution. If victims are still eligible to file civil lawsuits, however, the surrounding publicity may draw out other victims and could lead to subsequent criminal prosecutions, advocates say.
“When a predator is exposed in any way, in any form, it encourages victims, witnesses, whistle-blowers to step forward and perhaps file criminal charges,” Clohessy said.
“Obviously, kids are safest when predators are jailed,” he said. “Sometimes civil suits lead to criminal prosecution. Even when they don’t, they warn people about a potentially dangerous child molester.”
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