If you’ve ever taken a psychology class, then you know about the famous murder of Kitty Genovese, who called out for help as she was stabbed in her apartment in Queens, New York. The police reported the next day that at least 38 people had heard her screams but did nothing. Psychologists reference the case when demonstrating the “bystander effect”–people’s default mode is to do nothing because they expect someone else will.
The first time I heard of the case against Jerry Sandusky and the fallout at Penn State University, I thought of the “bystander effect.” People were infuriated that several parties, including Joe Paterno, the board of the university, and others, did nothing when they heard about Sandusky’s actions. That seems to be the standard protocol when it comes to cases of child sexual abuse–do nothing.
Let me give you some facts: one in three children before the age of 18 will become a victim of sexual assault, and almost 80 percent of those cases will never be reported or come to light. Even if they are reported, the chances they will actually be tried are slim. If the case goes to court, the chances that the perpetrator will spend any real time in prison are low. So even the victims’ default is to do nothing.
I know this all firsthand because I was a victim of sexual assault and sat through a landmark federal case that took up over two years of my life. When it came time for sentencing, the guidelines suggested 10 to 20 years. He got 18 months and probably got out early for good behavior.
While investigating my case, the FBI found more than 20 additional victims (both boys and girls) that this man had either raped or molested but did nothing afterward because they felt it was enough that he was already in jail. Once again, the default became “do nothing.”
When I spoke as a keynote speaker at a U.S. Department of Justice conference, a U.S. Attorney came up to me afterward and said that judges really don’t like to sentence pedophiles for lengthy terms because they often feel as if they are looking at their golfing buddy from the country club and think a slap on the wrist should be enough. I would say they do next to nothing. I’ve never seen a case with maximum sentencings. In fact, the wife of Elizabeth Smart’s captor who held her for years is now scheduled to be released in about four years. Those hoping that Sandusky will be locked away without the key should stop. I doubt it will happen.
I spent a lot of time lobbying on Capitol Hill, and I won’t name names, but even many people in Congress wanted to ”do nothing.” Even while you are bluntly telling them about how two-year-olds are being raped while a pedophile watches via Web cam, you hear lines about how this isn’t the right agenda for them. They’d rather spend time saving dolphins or one focused on a bridge being built in his home state. Laws are already in place to protect children, so they do nothing.
The cost is so high for our doing nothing. After working and talking with many victims of sexual assault, it’s almost impossible to understand the full traumatic consequences at such a young age. What I can say is that often a lifetime battle of post-traumatic stress syndrome results, along with an inability to trust, sometimes suicide, and even the creation of future perpetrators. What is so troubling to me is that people know this, and still they do nothing. But that’s how it goes. We hear about people being murdered and you do nothing, because you think someone else will. Sadly, when it comes to sexual assault of children, there’s not a lot of people doing.