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Child Sexual Abuse: Don’t Hide Your Head in the Sand

child sexual abuseRight as the Summer Olympic Games started in Rio, the IndyStar reported that USA Gymnastics, the national governing body for gymnastics, ignored sexual abuse allegations filed against coaches. Complaints were reportedly filed against more than 50 gymnastics coaches, but authorities were not contacted about the complaints if they did not come directly from a victim or her parents. Three of those coaches have since been convicted, while a fourth killed himself in jail.

Before I mention any details, I have to give a trigger warning to trauma survivors. This news brought up a lot of poignant, ugly feelings for me.

In the case of one coach, USA Gymnastics (USAG) received at least four complaints against William McCabe, according to the IndyStar. In 1998, then-gym owner Dan Dickey told the organization in a letter that McCabe “should be locked in a cage before someone is raped.” He also mentioned that he fired McCabe when another staff member claimed he had bragged that he had a 15-year-old in her underwear and that he was hopeful he would “f— her very soon.”

Federal charges weren’t brought against McCabe until 2006. He was charged with molesting girls, secretly videotaping them while nude, and posting naked photos of them on the Internet. He pleaded guilty to sexual exploitation of children and making false statements and was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

IndyStar filed a motion to make the USAG’s other 50 abuse files public, but a judge has not yet ruled in that case.

Of course, I couldn’t watch the US women’s gymnastics team — the Final Five — without that painful tug in my heart. USAG members include more than 120,000 athletes at 3,000 gyms. What about the victims?

Sexual abuse victims are frightened. Many have been threatened by their victimizer not to tell anyone about the abuse. All it takes is one moment of hesitation or doubt on the part of an adult for a child to give up and shut down.

“My 11-year-old daughter said her step-father sneaks into her room at night,” one parent shared with Darkness to Light (D2L), “Then she said she made it up. Now she won’t say anything. I don’t know what to do.”

The only time I attempted to tell on my abuser, I was beaten. The abuse continued for years. That one failed attempted to get help kept me silent for most of my life. I spent decades vacillating between suicidal depression and dissociative denial.

Disclosure on the part of the victim isn’t required for adults to do their legal duty. “All 50 states require that professionals who work with children report reasonable suspicions of child abuse,” says D2L. “Some states require that anyone with suspicions report it. Information about each state’s requirements is available at the Child Welfare Information Gateway”

I advise any adult to follow the guidelines put forth very precisely by D2L: React responsibly when a child discloses sexual abuse to you, when you witness abuse, or when you suspect abuse may be happening. “Disclosure, discovery, and suspicions of sexual abuse provide opportunities to intervene on behalf of a child,” D2L says. They offer definitions for each circumstance:

Disclosure of sexual abuse means a child has chosen you as the person he or she trusts enough to tell. It is the moment when children learn whether others can be trusted to stand up for them.
Discovery of sexual abuse means you’ve witnessed a sexually abusive act by an adult or youth with a child, or you know by some other means that abuse has taken place.
Suspicion of sexual abuse means you’ve seen signs in a child, or you’ve witnessed boundary violations by adults or other youth toward a child.

Report abuse to legal authorities, not just an organization or governing body like the USAG. A child needs you to be a hero. “Sometimes we have to take risks to protect children,” D2L says, “even if we are uncertain or don’t know the outcome.”

If you’re worried about “ruining” someone’s reputation, D2L reminds you that, “Very few reported incidents of child sexual abuse are false.” The idea that adults or children are falsely accusing others of sexual abuse is a head-in-the-sand argument. The easiest thing to do when abuse occurs is nothing. The hardest thing to do is pursue it, face it as a reality, and report it.

No one wants to be affected by child sexual abuse. No one wants it as part of their own personal experience. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen every day. One in 10 children will be sexually abused before they turn 18 years old. Childhood sexual trauma affects a person forever. It can be a lifelong struggle to overcome.

Do the hard thing. When you make yourself a confidante to an abused child, you are providing them with a safe haven — sometimes it’s the only safe place they’ve ever known. Be a brave voice in the darkness and seek help. If you don’t know what to do next, contact a national helpline:

Stop It Now! 1-888-PREVENT (888-773-2362)
Darkness to Light 1-866-FOR-LIGHT (866-367-5444)
The Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline 1-800-4-A-CHILD (800-422-4453)

Eric Simard/Bigstock

Child Sexual Abuse: Don’t Hide Your Head in the Sand

Sarah Newman, MA, MFA

Sarah Newman is the managing editor and associate publisher of PsychCentral and the founding editor-in-chief of the Poydras Review.

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APA Reference
Newman, S. (2018). Child Sexual Abuse: Don’t Hide Your Head in the Sand. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 1 Sep 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.