Commentary: Childhood sexual abuse causes life-long damage


In the Penn State University pedophilia scandal and cases involving Catholic priests, many wonder how the perpetrators got away with the crimes for so long and how the sexual assaults on children went unreported for years.

Often, only victims come close to providing answers. The Penn State case forced me to relive incidents that I had buried decades ago of boys like me being molested on a school playground.

The school no longer exists, but the traumatic memory of what an older, larger, muscular, teenage boy did remains unforgettable. The boy had flunked repeatedly, leaving him in elementary school when he should’ve entered high school long ago.

He was in seventh-grade when I transferred to his school in the sixth grade. The boy liked to pretend he was the main character in the cartoon, “Birdman.” He’d swoop down on smaller, unsuspecting boys, grab us around the neck and mimic a sex act on the school playground.

Teachers, as playground monitors, saw the assaults but looked the other way. None of the other boys would go to any victim’s aid fearing the big boy would beat and then hump him, too.

When the big boy swooped, kids screamed and scattered. Past victims would tease new ones, and everyone laughed.

The big boy didn’t bother the girls, just boys, and we were powerless against the attacker who deserves the label pedophile. Boys are easy targets for abuse. Their silence is certain because anyone who protested got the unwanted label of “punk.”

It kept everyone defenseless and quiet, allowing him to prey on us unchecked. No one reported the molestation mostly because we thought teachers feared the big boy, too. It was hard to know what to do, and for kids it always seemed easier to put it out of our young minds and let it go.

That happens repeatedly in cases of pedophilia involving predators whether they’re older boys, men, Catholic priests or Penn State officials. The sad part is good people — because of friendships, fear or cognitive dissidence — become paralyzed by inaction, giving wrongdoers an open playground — just like at the school of my youth.

The crimes only get worse if not stopped. That happened the next year, at the school in the seventh- and eighth-grade boys’ gym class.

We had to change clothes in the locker room at the gym across the street from the school and then change back after the workout.

With the big boy in the eighth grade, none of us was willing to risk taking a shower. It was a lot safer to go back to class smelly. It was a fitting revenge against the teachers and other school officials who did nothing to protect us.

But one day, an eighth-grader decided to shower after gym class. The predator quickly stripped off his clothing and swooped onto the boy, yelling “Birdman.”

A stampede of seventh- and eighth-grade boys followed, running from the gym to the safety of the school. I’ll always remember as we ran past the showers the boy’s frightened face. He was dwarfed by the attacker, who grabbed him from behind.

None of us talked about what happened that day, and the victim never said a word either.

A couple of years passed, and some of us joined the victimized boy in high school after we’d finished the eighth grade. The predator went to a different high school. I could only think good riddance.

The victimized boy seemed his usual upbeat, jovial self. Several of us from the same grade school were on the high school’s track team.

But we lost track of each other after we graduated. It wasn’t until our 25th high school reunion in 1998 that I learned what had happened to the boy assaulted in grade school.

He had committed suicide. The circumstances were unclear.

But I will always wonder whether that ill-timed shower and the assault on him were responsible, whether the victim’s death could’ve been prevented if teachers or kids acting in concert had stopped the assailant. The Penn State and priests’ sexual assault cases bring back those and a million other questions from incidents going back 45 years.

I hope the lesson everyone takes from the current scandals is to take a stand against child abuse. You don’t want to live with regrets later.

Related stories from McClatchy DC