With the big media attention that’s been paid recently to things like the Sandusky case at Penn State, the Boys Scouts, Jimmy Savile in the UK, and other abuse cases, it seems like there almost a hunt for the “next” big story, leading to a handful of accusations being made, and being made very, very publicly, long before there is any proof.
In the UK, it was a case of the media actually making a mistake and identifying the wrong person. In the US recently, we’ve seen Bernie Fine, a former assistant basketball coach at Syracuse University, removed from his job, publicly shamed on every major news outlet and a year later, after a long investigation, quietly having the case dropped, and now just this week, we’ve seen Kevin Clash, better known as the voice of Elmo, suspended for what was described as ” a sexual relationship with a minor”, who it turns out, was a consenting adult, not a minor.
Why do I bring these up? As a community we are constantly telling ourselves that abuse victims should always be believed, and never lie. We aren’t always so good at recognizing what that means. and how people will respond to that sort of environment. Think of it this way, we now know, and understand, that there are certain professions, and volunteer activities, that have adults working closely with children. We also understand that, especially in volunteer capacities, that adults who wish to abuse children, use those positions as a way to groom victims. Traditionally, though not so much any more, volunteer coaches, educators, and other roles were seen as “trustworthy” by the community at large, and therefore people began to misuse that trust. Any time the conventional wisdom says that “x” must always be true, someone will immediately try and take advantage of it.
This truth is not well recognized among survivors, but that doesn’t make it untrue. The fact is, by promoting the idea that abuse victims never lie, we’ve invited people to lie about it. What better way to truly ruin someone’s life than to make an accusation that the community at large will never question, and will automatically be accepted as gospel truth? Not only will it be believed, but we will be welcomed into the community and hailed for having the courage to speak up. The fact that there’s no proof any of it is true, will not matter. The media will soak it up, there will be multiple TV and radio shows dedicated to discussing the case, and by the time the authorities get around to completing an investigation, it won’t come close to undoing the damage caused.
The question then becomes, how do we encourage victims to speak up, without inviting the cause of supporting survivors to be undermined by those who simply wish to destroy someone’s life with a false accusation? I don’t know how we do that. I want to be able to support and have those who are willing to come forward be believed, but I also want to support the notion that until the claims are fully investigated, that innocent people should not be publicly tarred with the “P” word. (Are the allegations true against Fine? I don’t know, but barring any official charges, how can we ever truly know, and what should be the proper way to treat a person when an investigation is dropped?) How we determine that balance will say a lot about us as a society, and I suspect, will also say a lot about the survivor community as well. Many more cases like these, and we may just find ourselves the group that cried wolf, and that would be a tremendous shame.