Elie Wiesel once wrote “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” Sadly, as we learned at Penn State University, silence among leaders empowered an alleged child abuser.
The Baltimore Child Abuse Center sees more than 900 abused children annually. In 90 percent of these cases the children know their abuser, who is frequently a trusted adult such as family members, neighbors, coaches, and people who we believe will have children’s best interests at heart but sadly do not. Former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky shows us that the abuser can be anyone among us. There is a Sandusky in every neighborhood.
The sad lesson worth noting is the failure to help the children who were abused due to the silence of all those who discovered Sandusky’s sexual abuse. There simply is no excuse that no one did anything to stop Sandusky. Were they all so afraid of being wrong to accuse, or even worse, afraid of the fallout if Sandusky’s crimes were discovered? Their inaction wasn’t really any different than [German anti-Nazi theologian Martin] Niemoller’s famous quote that “When they [the Nazis] came for the Jews, I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.”
Abuse only stops when someone steps in and reports it. When all too many responsible authority figures turned a blind eye to Sandusky’s abuse of a minor in a locker room, the “leadership” of Penn State all failed in their basic ethical responsibilities as human beings. Kids cannot protect themselves alone; adults need to stand up for children and to insist that abuse stops and something gets done about it.
Maryland Family Law states in several sections of its code that a “person … who has reason to believe that a child has been subjected to abuse or neglect shall …notify the local department or the appropriate law enforcement agency.” It doesn’t get clearer than that. And those laws are in addition to the mandatory requirements placed upon health practitioners, police officers, educators and human service workers to report suspected abuse. These laws state that you need to report abuse when it’s suspected. You call 9-1-1 and you call Child Protective Services (410-361-2235).
But what good are laws if citizens don’t use them? It’s time we stopped our collective communal inaction. Our leaders urge us to report suspected terrorists; it’s time we report suspected child abusers.
Perhaps another quote from Elie Wiesel should explain what we must do as a society: “One person of integrity can make a difference.” It’s time to be that person of integrity and stop the continued abuse of children.
Adam Rosenberg is executive director of the Baltimore Child Abuse Center.