By Desmond K. Runyan, MD, DrPH, Executive Director, The Kempe Center
The recent revelations from Pennsylvania about child sexual victimization by an assistant football coach at Penn State University are very troubling. By report, a child was alleged to have been victimized within the Penn State football program facilities and other boys are alleged to have been victimized by the same person in other settings.
Make no mistake, sexual abuse is harmful for its victims. Children who have been sexually abused are harmed by the traumatic sexualization, betrayal of trust, loss of control over their own bodies, and by the social stigma of having been a victim.
The good news is that most children, with the support of their families, and, as needed, medical and mental health services, go on to lead full normal lives. The children in this case are not alone. Studies reveal that nearly 25 percent of adult American women and 13 percent of adult American men were sexually victimized by an adult involving physical contact. However, the majority of these children can recover and become normal, productive adults.
Recent research emphasized that abuse in childhood can have long-term repercussions including even heart disease and cancer. These adverse effects are real but modifiable. The strongest predictor of recovery is physical and emotional support by a parent, usually the mother. Children whose mothers know about the abuse and take steps to help children understand that it wasn’t their fault, that they are believed, and that the family will take steps to make sure that they are protected in the future are the ones who are likely to do well. Conversely, children made to feel responsible for the abuse or who are seen as “damaged goods” by family members are those who usually do poorly in life.
The victims at Penn State are not sentenced to long-term harm. With family support, a strong commitment to their protection in the future, and mental health assistance when needed, these children have the capacity and promise of full recovery.