When a victim comes out against an abuser, it throws their shared community into a collective mind f**k. People can’t get their heads around the truth: “He’s such a nice guy! He’s helped so many inner city youth/he’s a deacon in the church/he founded the shelter for wombats.”
In order not to get caught, to appease their tortured consciences, whatever: perpetrators often cultivate a rich, wholesome community life. They actually do good things. Can anyone say “Jerry Sandusky”? People trust the guy, and the truth is profoundly disorienting-so, rather than rethink reality-pow! They attack the victim.
Last week in Kansas City, good family man and pillar-of-his-community Darren Paden pleaded guilty–and was sentenced to 50 years in prison–for “repeatedly sexually abusing a child for at least a decade.” Paden and his victim live in Dearborn, Missouri, such a small town it’s really an extended family of 500 people–and it’s now divided. The girl he abused, now 18, has been ostracized and shunned by more than half the community. Some claim that Paden broke down under a too-forcible police interrogation. (He confessed after only a couple of hours.) But if other people insist he’s innocent, it just makes it harder for a self-confessed offender to change his ways.
A warm, church-going man, Paden “has a lot of good, positive things in his life, too,” said his aunt, who wrote to the court pleading for leniency. That “too” says a lot. It implies she believes he is an abuser. Yet faced with two irreconcilable images of someone we believe we know, one must prevail as being “the real person”; and so, we take sides. A community will maintain its sense of stability at all cost. Therefore, the victims of sexual abuse are labeled as community-destroying pariahs.
Matthew Sandusky, the adopted son and victim of Jerry Sandusky, faced a terrible choice in choosing to testify against his father. The elder Sandusky was convicted of 45 counts of child sexual abuse in 2012. As the jury went to deliberation, Matthew approached police: He also had a story of abuse to tell, admitting that he had lied to the grand jury by previously supporting his father. Ultimately, Matthew did not testify in court, but the sticky consequences of coming forward spun out nonetheless. In his July, 2014 interview on Oprah, Matthew struggled with the implications for his family–“they’re innocent,” he said, holding back tears. It’s a telling word. He knew his own children would be treated like criminals. In fact, they were harassed to such an extent that the family surname has been changed and is not publicly known.
Viewing the characters in these too-true stories as either devil or angel is destructive because it promotes a false view of human beings (we’re all good or all bad). It promises golden opportunities to the next “closeted” child molester: If you’re clever and charming enough, even after you confess your guilt, half the town will be convinced you’re innocent. The truth is far more difficult. Yes, Darren Paden did many lovable things for his neighbors; and Yes, he did molest that young woman. Yes, Sandusky raped all those boys, and, Yes: he did do a whole lot for Penn State.
“Missouri Town Rallies in Support of Convicted Child Molester,” a current headline reads. As long as we keep viewing other people through a lens of black-and-white moral absolutes, we miss the point of Matthew Sandusky’s story: You can love someone even as you identify him as a criminal. We are also partly culpable for the perpetuation of child sexual abuse. And we aren’t helping perpetrators take responsibility for their crimes.