Three Signs It’s a Sexual Abuse Cover-Up and Not Just an Innocent Misunderstanding

In yesterday’s installment in this series on preventing and stopping sexual abuse, I created three pairs of fictional scenarios.  Scene A was a typical case of ordinary parish life mishaps; Scene B was covert sexual abuse.  Today I want to explain how I crafted those pairs, and what the hallmarks of covert abuse were that I put into all the Scene B’s.

Let’s pause here and encourage you to read up on this subject elsewhere.  My analysis below isn’t based on statistical modeling, and I don’t have academic credentials to hand you.  This is just me taking what I’ve seen and heard, both from my own experience with sexual abuse cases (limited) and reading and listening to the accounts of others.  I’m writing what I am not because I’m the world’s expert, but because this topic is so important that you can’t just sit around hoping someone more impressive will come along and answer all the questions.  I hope they will.  But meanwhile, we who’ve been in the trenches just share what we know.

So I write this because I know how difficult it is to put your finger on why something is not right when you are presented with a case of covert abuse, and how important it is to step in and act at this stage, before the child porn and the sodomy and the rape get going.

This is me explaining the ingredients I put into my scenarios yesterday that, in my experience, are common characteristics of covert abuse:

1. Inappropriate Intimacy: Behavior Doesn’t Match Context

Covert abusers use normal situations as their cover-story for why they are so physically close to their victims.  We know of many situations in which we come into close physical contact with another person, whether it’s in sports, or medicine, or day-to-day childcare.  Physical touch in the form of a chaste hug, appropriate hand-holding, or other gestures of affection or solidarity are normal and healthy.  Very young children need diapers changed or assistance potty-training, and often need to be held or carried.  As a teacher or caregiver, you may have situations where you have to address sexual issues, such as finding sanitary pads for a student who’s surprised by her period or telling a young man to pull up his pants (underwear showing at the waist) or zip his fly.

The difference between abuse and normal care is that the abuser uses the excuse of a normal situation as a cover-up for abnormal behavior.  Comparing the pairs of scenarios I wrote:

  • It’s normal (though hopefully rare) for a teacher to have to respond to a fashion accident.  It’s not normal for a teacher to physically touch a student’s chest or groin as part of “checking the dress code.”
  • Normal physical contact in sports or games might involve holding hands, locking wrists, helping someone get up from the floor, correcting an athlete’s posture or position — but it doesn’t involve copping a feel.
  • Normal first aid includes washing cuts or checking for other injuries, but if a kid comes to you with an ordinary scraped knee, you don’t need to do an inspection of the pelvis.

When you say goodnight to a child, your hands don’t go under the covers.  When you are holding a child in the pool, your hands don’t go inside the swimsuit.

There are times when intimate contact is necessary, and at those times our culture (and every other) uses norms of behavior to distinguish between what is acceptable and what is not.  A nurse might draw blood from your elbow with little fanfare, but if you’re being prepped for a medical procedure in your pelvic area, there will be any number of steps taken to safeguard modesty — a third person present, draping to avoid exposing more than is necessary, verbal confirmation of what is happening and why.

Covert abuse uses normal pretexts to violate any reasonable understanding of appropriate behavior between two persons.

2. Intentional or Persistent Behavior

You can accidentally brush up against someone in perfect innocence.  You can trip and reach out to catch yourself, or extend your hand to give the Sign of Peace at Mass, and accidentally find your hand on exactly the wrong body part of some other person.  You can accidentally walk in on someone who forgot to lock the bathroom door.  You can go to grab a runaway toddler and find yourself with a handful something that’s supposed to be covered by a diaper and may or may not be. (The Venn diagram showing the sets “Runaway Toddler” and “Naked Toddler” includes a massive overlap.) You can misunderstand the customs of a foreign culture, or misunderstand the instructions on how to handle a new or unusual situation.  But accidents are not repeated behavior.

If the gym teacher accidentally touches your daughter’s breast, he’ll apologize and be more careful and it won’t happen again.  If he needs to adjust her arm or her shoulder, he’ll say, “I’m going to put my hand on your shoulder,” or “I’m going to raise your arm and move it to the left just a bit,” and he’ll only touch shoulder or arm. If he has some “reason” his hand just has to keep going back to her breast, or he keeps having these “accidents?” Then they aren’t accidents.  In the sexting story linked below, you could accidentally send the wrong picture to a student once; you don’t habitually dial a score of wrong numbers over and over again.

Covert abuse may use “accident” or “mistake” as a cover-up, but the repeated or purposeful nature of the behavior indicates that this is an excuse.

3. Won’t Accept No

A third sign to look for in covert abuse is ignoring the victim’s request to stop.  In using the excuses of normal physical contact to get away with abuse, the abuser will look for situations where he or she can get the benefit of the doubt.  Maybe in her expertise as a PE teacher or nurse or seamstress she really did think it was necessary to carry out this or that procedure that involved touching the child in that particular place.  She has the advanced training — maybe that’s really how this thing is done?

There are very few situations in which it is necessary to insist on cooperation concerning physical touch, and those few scenarios usually involve either life-and-death or a toddler running away with a poopy diaper.   They are obvious situations.  If no one’s gasping for air or bleeding to death, you can talk it out, wait it out, or skip it.

Abusers take advantage of the fact that children are trained to trust and obey adults, and adults are trained to trust and obey authorities.  Most victims won’t protest loudly, they will protest meekly and politely.

An abuser may try to force cooperation by overstating the seriousness of the situation, or by accusing the victim of being a bad sport.  A refusal to accept no can also take the form of merrily proceeding with the abusive behavior and pretending not to notice that the victim is protesting.

***

As I say, this isn’t the definitive guide.  This is me telling you what I’ve observed based on my limited and mostly secondhand experience.  But because I’ve seen these three aspects of covert abuse crop up over and again, I think they are worth remembering.

***

Book recommendation: A reader reminds me to point you to Gavin de Becker’s excellent work on the topic of identifying genuine danger, The Gift of Fear.  I think it’s not unreasonable to put it on your must-read list.

 

Related – Previous posts in my intermittent series on the topic of preventing and stopping sexual abuse:

Phone Before You’re Sure: Why Stopping Sexual Abuse Requires Early Police Involvement – Contains a review of the basic strategies organizations use to prevent and stop sexual abuse (and other crime), a brief discussion of why you won’t necessarily know whether a crime has taken place when the victim tells you about it, sample scenarios to illustrate that point, and a follow-up about why and how to get in contact with the authorities ASAP to get your questions resolved.

How to Idiot Proof Your Parish and Diocese Against the Sexual Abuse Crisis – The reality is that your organization isn’t run by angelic administrative geniuses, it’s run by people like you.  This is a review of the things we do to prevent and stop sexual abuse, taking into account the limitations and challenges of conditions on the ground.  Message: You aren’t going to do things perfectly all the time, but with a concerted effort to deal with safety concerns despite yourself, you can still create a sound, safe environment. 

Unclear on the Concept, Teachers Sexting Edition – Comments on a news article about a teacher sending lewd photographs to her students, and the parent’s reaction as quoted in the story.  This is an example of attempts at charity gone awry.   

Just Tell the Police – Why you should contact the police about suspected child abuse.  Includes a discussion of common concerns about adding to the child’s suffering or accidentally putting an innocent person through the wringer.

We’ve Got a Sexual Abuse Prevention Policy, Now What? – Best practices in taking your policy and putting it to work.

Um, and I have this other book about Classroom Management for Catechists, which might be of interest if you’re trying to figure out what to do right in managing a group of kids.  You can read about it here, and see the reviews on Amazon.  People say it’s helpful.  I think it is, that’s why I wrote it — for me because I needed it.

File:Pantheon Oculus.jpg

Photo by Joachim Pense.JPense at el.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons


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