Hurting them is not accidental, it's the goal, but all it takes to muddy the waters is the argument about degree. Is spanking abuse? Is yelling? Is fondling? If there are no cuts and bruises how bad is it, really?
In the past few weeks the stories have been coming at us, fast and furious.
On November 5, Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was finally charged with serial sex abuse of minors after years of sexual contact with children as young as nine years old. (complete Grand Jury report is here.) During those years several adults were suspicious of his activities but didn't come forward.
One boy's mother, after finding out Sandusky had shared a shower with her son, told him he must never do it again. She tries to make him promise not to shower with young boys at all. She fails. He tells her, "I understand I was wrong. I wish I could get forgiveness. I know I won't get it from you. I wish I were dead." That was in 1998.
Sandusky was caught in the act at least twice during those years and hauled on the carpet. In 2002 an eyewitness went to Paterno's office and reported an incident involving actual intercourse between Sandusky and a ten-year-old boy. The eyewitness was never questioned, but was told that Sandusky's locker room keys had been taken away from him and the incident had been reported. Nothing else happened.
Now Joe Paterno, a beloved long-time coach, has been fired after evidence surfaced proving he knew of at least one instance of the abuse and did nothing about it. On hearing the news of his firing, crowds of students gathered in protest, not against Paterno but against the board's decision to let him go. (It's been said there was a small contingent protesting at the same time against the sexual abuse, but it apparently wasn't worthy of a news story because it's not out there anywhere.)
A Texas family judge, William Adams, is caught on videotape beating his disabled daughter with a thick belt, striking her hard at least 20 times. The girl's mother is seen hitting her once with another belt, telling her to "take it like a grown woman". The incident was secretly taped by the girl in 2004, when she was 16 years old. The girl recently put the videotape on YouTube (after her father dared her to do it, she says), but no charges will be issued against the judge because the tape is more than five years old, beyond the Statute of Limitations.
The story was detailed last week in the U.K-based Mail Online. The story itself is horrific enough, but buried inside was this bit of nasty business:
As a result of the furor, the video was being examined by the District Attorney and previous controversial judgements Judge Adams made in cases involving children have come to light.
In a court judgement last October, Judge Adams said that a child's statements 'amounted to no evidence' despite the fact the child's words had been confirmed by third party witnesses and recorded on video several times. The young person had also been interviewed by a child psychologist who believed the child.
Judge Adams also agreed with a lawyer who claimed all children are 'fantasizers' and their testimony should just be ignored.
Michael Pearl, a preacher at the Cave Creek church in Tennessee, wrote a book called "To Train up a Child", advocating corporal punishment modeled on “the same principles the Amish use to train their stubborn mules”. This from a November 6 NYT article:
More than 670,000 copies of the Pearls’ self-published book are in circulation, and it is especially popular among Christian home-schoolers, who praise it in their magazines and on their Web sites. The Pearls provide instructions on using a switch from as early as six months to discourage misbehavior and describe how to make use of implements for hitting on the arms, legs or back, including a quarter-inch flexible plumbing line that, Mr. Pearl notes, “can be rolled up and carried in your pocket.”
So far, three child deaths have been attributed to the use of the methods in that book, yet Preacher Pearl and his wife, Debi, have appeared on shows like Anderson Cooper 360 to defend their methods and their book. As a compelling visual, "Pastor Pearl" brings a length of the plumbing line to demonstrate that it might sting but it won't do damage to muscle or bone.
In the NYT account, there is this paragraph, describing the condition of a child who had been murdered by her parents:
Late one night in May this year, the adopted girl, Hana, was found face down, naked and emaciated in the backyard; her death was caused by hypothermia and malnutrition, officials determined. According to the sheriff’s report, the parents had deprived her of food for days at a time and had made her sleep in a cold barn or a closet and shower outside with a hose. And they often whipped her, leaving marks on her legs. The mother had praised the Pearls’ book and given a copy to a friend, the sheriff’s report said. Hana had been beaten the day of her death, the report said, with the 15-inch plastic tube recommended by Mr. Pearl.This controversy brought Michael Pearl into the spotlight, not as an accomplice or the devil incarnate, but as a minor actor, the requisite media shock blast in a compelling, agonizing tragedy. He and his wife were wined and dined, all expenses paid, to appear on television as a defender of corporal punishment in the wake of a terrible, preventable tragedy. Never mind that the parents, now murderers of an innocent child, saw something in Pearl's book that gave them permission to abuse their children. The mere sight of Pearl handling a 15-inch length of plumbing tube while defending its use is the kind of hold-your-nose moment we've all come to recognize as an odious but reliable tool to increase nightly ratings.
A 7th Grade Special Education student was raped twice in the course of two years by a fellow student. School officials didn't believe her story and after the second accusation, she was expelled and made to apologize to the boy who raped her.
The girl was first raped at Republic Middle School in the spring of 2009, according to the lawsuit. After the mother notified the school, the girl described the rape and "multiple sexual assaults" she'd experienced at school that year to Duncan, Mithelavage and Ragain. They then told the mother that they thought that her daughter made it all up.
During subsequent meetings described in the lawsuit as "intimidating interrogations," the lawsuit says the officials told the girl that they thought she was lying about the rape. The girl's mother was later told that her daughter recanted her story during one of those meetings.
The family's lawyers note in the lawsuit that the girl's school file contains a psychological report describing her as adverse to conflict, passive and "would forego her own needs and wishes to satisfy the request of others around so that she can be accepted."
Following instructions from the school, the girl wrote an apology to the boy she accused of raping her and had to personally give it to him, according to the lawsuit. She was then expelled for the remainder of the 2008-09 school year. The school also told "juvenile authorities" that she filed a false report.
In the moment, as we bring ourselves to watch or read the sad, horrific details in these stories and so many others, we tell ourselves we can't stand it. Enough. We rail, we wail, we pontificate. Something must be done! But it goes on. It ever goes on. Because once a fuss is made, once we as a nation howl at the moon and do the requisite teeth-gnashing, the moment passes and we move on nearly residue-free until it happens again.
We could stop it if we forced the courts and thus the perpetrators to recognize that child abuse in any form is a major crime. When the victims are helpless children, their abuse has to be considered a crime worthy of punishment so severe the offenders assaulting them will be stopped forever. The sentencing guidelines need to be so stringent there won't be a judge in the land who will ever again dismiss abuse as mere necessary punishment or childhood imagination.
But it won't happen until we can get past the widespread approval of spanking as a useful punishment. There is no cause, ever, to lay hands on a child and cause pain in order to get the point across. Radical, I know, but think about it: There are millions of children who grew up to become adults without once being spanked or hit or injured by a parent. I was one of them, and I know for a fact I'm not alone. Each child of mine can make the same claim.
Every child has worth. Every child needs to feel loved, to feel secure, to feel as if their world is a good place to grow up in. And only those who have already become adults can make that happen.