A code of silence is an unspoken contract between people who agree to pretend that what’s going on isn’t going on. Everyone understands the rules of the road so to speak: See No Evil. Hear No Evil. Speak No Evil.
To maintain the code, everyone must have a clear understanding of what’s at stake and what happens if the code is broken. Everyone is in protection mode: “You don’t tell on me. I don’t tell on you. You keep what you have. I’ll keep what I have and as codes of silence promise, we’ll live happily ever after.
When a code of silence is broken, a Pandora Box opens. And so it was with the Roman Catholic Church’s child sex abuse scandal. Its box, which held the secrets of priests, nuns and church leaders not only opened, the lid was pried off. And, the contents spilled onto the world’s floor, making visible the gender and ages of thousands of children for whom, “Suffer little children to come unto me,” took on a whole new meaning.
That this happened and went on for many decades is deplorable but as sad as it is to say, it’s also understandable. It’s understandable because as a society, we had no legal way of protecting children against abuse (especially the kind that left no visible scars) until 1976 when Congress passed the Child Abuse and Neglect Act (PL 93-247) that essentially said grown men and women no longer had this country’s permission to use children to satisfy their sexual urges. Prior to the passage of the law, children were children – not people. They had no rights. They had no voice – at least not the one needed by a sexually abused child. The passage increased public awareness. Child Abuse and neglect training, finger printing and background checks for employers, employees and volunteers who interacted with children was required. Professionals were mandated to report suspected abuse. Children were schooled on safety and self-protection at school, at home and in community programs.
Nine years after the passage of the Child Abuse and Neglect Act, members of the Roman Catholic Church were forced to stop playing its version of the TV show, “I’ve Got A Secret. “ And, for more than 20 years now, we’ve been confronted with the hurt and anger and fear and shame and guilt endured by sexually abused boys and girls because the Roman Catholic Church chose to protect its image and its riches. Clergy were invested in protecting their positions and their influence. Parishioners, understandably, wanted to maintained their deference and their faith. We expressed our outrage by raising our collective voices and shaking our collective pointing finger.
By 2012 when the content of Penn State’s Pandora Box spilled out of the locker room and onto the football field, our finger had Carpal Tunnel but we wagged it anyway and our voice rose to a crescendo, as we demanded to know, once again, “How could this happen?” What a stupid question. It’s stupid because what boy, in 1971 or 1998 (or when the abuse started) who was in his right mind and striving to be accepted as worthy of playing the manly game of football would be stupid enough to tell anyone that an employee who worked with the revered head coach of the revered football team had violated his body, his mind and his spirit? Each of the ten boys Sandusky was convicted of abusing knew beyond a shadow of a doubt, if a choice had to be made between a sexually abused boy and a Division One football team that was generating millions of dollars for the school and had more players drafted by and admitted in the NFL than any other college, the team would win hand over fist. Like the Roman Catholic Church, administrators protected the school’s image and its wealth, the coaching staff protected the team’s reputation and its status and the community wrapped its arms around the ‘Nittany Lions” with pride and the promise of support.
I suspect that I speak for most people when I say I hope there are no more boxes; that there will be no more spills. But the truth is; I don’t believe that simply because this has gone on too long – keeping codes of silence, I mean. They operate everywhere – in other churches and in other schools, among family members and friends, colleagues and peers, public servants and community workers. Abiding by the code has become a habit for people and a thread that runs through the fabric of organizations, institutions and families. While it’s generally not stated, it’s understood that those who abide by the code are rewarded. Those who violate the code are punished.
We’ve railed against the Roman Catholic Church and Penn State because it makes us feel like we are better than they. But are we really? Like it or not, we know why they were silent. They did what far too many of us cannot unequivocally say we wouldn’t do or haven’t done: practice self-preservation at the expense of children. Explanations such as “I need my paycheck, my kids are in college, I’m just one person, I didn’t really see it,” are just some of the reasons given for looking the other way. Problem is, these are not reasons. They are excuses –excuses that make it easy for us to work out the equation so that the “X Factor” is a child.
How often have we seen that puzzled look on a face while the question,
“Why didn’t s/he tell someone” is asked? I’m sure you’ve seen it more times than either of us can count. And, we’ll continue to see it as long as grown-ups don’t want to know children are being sexually abused and children who are sexually abused believe they are better off not telling.
Sexually violated boys don’t tell. Why would they risk being accused of being a punk? They know that even the appearance of being “soft” can lead to a verbal whipping from coaches and parents and a teasing from teammate and classmates – even girls – that is equally as painful. They know, like they know their first and last names, what professional athletics and other men meant when they said, Jonathan Martin should’ve been able to handle his business with Incognito.
Sexually violated girls don’t tell. Why would they? In far too many instances, the accusatory looks accompanied by the question, “what did you do?” or the words, “You’re lying,” are enough to convince a sexually abused girl that her vagina is a liability. If she just didn’t have it, she wouldn’t be having an experience that she doesn’t want to have and one that even her pleading, her tears and her whimpering cannot stop.
What about children who are sexually abused before they develop the expressive vocabulary to describe a simple stomach ache? How can they be expected to use their tiny vocabulary to talk about something that creates such monstrous fear? By the time they know the right words, they generally have lost the will. The scar tissue of shame coupled with the looping tape that plays, “It’s your fault,” saps all of their energy. We need to stop being amazed that children don’t tell. In the final analysis, the same thing that motivates grown-ups to be silent also motivates children: self-preservation. The difference is, it’s an excuse for grown-ups. It’s a reason for children
This notion that a child sex abuser has recognizable characteristics is just another excuse thus the famous but overused “He’s an upstanding member of the community or “Not her! She wouldn’t do anything like that.” We’re willing to recklessly accuse the homosexual but won’t even allow ourselves to think the heterosexual coach might be a suspect; even one whose interaction with children is at best questionable. We instruct children to run from the man sitting on the park bench playing tiddlywinks under his raincoat but demand that they blindly go wherever men and women of “the cloth” lead them. Members of ethnic groups take pride in saying “We don’t sexually abuse children as much as “they” do” and render themselves superior by declaring that incest is more rampant in “their’ families than it is in ours. All this is just more self-preservation. The real deal is people need access and opportunity to abuse children. And the people who have it don’t come in any particular race or ethnic group. The collar on their work shirt can be white or blue or pink. They are simply males and females who choose to take from a child something that does not regenerate: her or his innocence. Why would anyone do that is another of those questions we keep asking? There are many reasons but the one about which there is no doubt is child sex abusers have an insatiable need for control. It is this that renders a child so vulnerable; so helpless.
We must bear the shame of knowing that the two institutions that exist partly because of their spiritual, moral, ethical and legal obligations to teach children to trust themselves and the world are doing just the opposite. They, along with the rest of us, are the reason far too many of our children are silent about things that only grown-ups can protect them from, things they shouldn’t have to feel or fear. But, we have a choice. We can either continue to point our already aching finger at the Church and the School or we can let them be a pathway to change – an opportunity for grown-up to make sure there are two questions we will never have to ask again: “How did this happen?” ”Why didn’t s/he tell someone? That means, however, we have to agree that silence is permission. If we agree, the action we must take is crystal clear: Break the codes of silence. If we’re not willing to do that nothing else matters.