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The Penn State Scandal Revisited: “The Avalanche Dynamic” In Child Abuse Cases

By November 23, 2011June 22nd, 2020No Comments

One of the more remarkable, and as of yet largely unanalyzed, developments arising out of the Penn State/Sandusky child abuse scandal is how quickly similar allegations elsewhere surfaced:  at the Citadel, at Syracuse University, at a  national gymnastics program,  and even in Congress, where a Michigan Congressman was accused of past abuse.

This is not unlike what we have seen before in different contexts:

–in 2002, when the Boston Globe broke the story of widespread abuse and cover up in the Boston Archdiocese, very quickly after that we saw abuse survivors stepping forward around the country:  Chicago, Milwaukie, Los Angeles, San Diego, Miami, and other places.  Soon, so many victims—literally thousands of them—had come forward that, within two years, the bankruptcies started: Portland, Tucson, San Diego, and elsewhere, as Church officials struggled to comprehend and respond to the massive scope of the problem.  Representing survivors of abuse at the hands of Catholic priests all around the country, and then representing more than 40 claimants in the Archdiocese of Portland bankruptcy, I saw this first hand.

–last year, in Spring of 2010, when for nearly two months Paul Mones and I tried the Kerry Lewis case against the Boy Scouts of America in Portland—resulting in a nearly $20 million verdict against BSA for its decades-long practice of ignoring child abuse in its programs—my office received over 650 phone calls—yes, that’s right, 650 phone calls in about 10 weeks—from men abused as boys in Scouting, all over the country, from the 1960’s to the 2000’s.  And now, as we are handling cases against the Scouts in over a dozen states, I see the same thing happening elsewhere.

–any child abuse lawyer who does very much of this work will attest that as the scandal at Penn State broke over the last three weeks, more victims have come forward to tell their stories: abuse in the Mormon Church, the Boy Scouts, the Catholic Church, schools, athletic leagues and elsewhere. Indeed, so prominent has been this dynamic that Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR’s fine religion reporter, did a story on it (in which I, along with Mitch Garabedian, a fine Boston lawyer, was interviewed), pointing out that the Penn State story was prompting abuse survivors in other contexts to come forward.

All of this is what I call “the Avalanche Dynamic,” and it is something I have thought a lot about.  I’m sure the mental health professionals in the child abuse field can explain the psychological dynamic, but what I have seen is that, for most child abuse survivors to come forward and break their silence, to tell someone—their spouses or parents, their counselors, a lawyer—what happened to them as children, there has to be some sort of a triggering event.  It can be, and often is, a news story about abuse, it can be an unexpected (and often unwelcome) confrontation with some reminder of the abuse, it can be watching a child, often their own, at the same age as was the victim at the time of the abuse.  But most child abuse survivors need some trigger, some precipitating event, to embolden them to come forward.

Now, cynics, of course, often assume something else is going on: that the survivors are “jumping on the bandwagon” or “reaching for the money” or other ignorant ideas.  To see these in action, just scroll down to the “comments” section anytime you read a new story about “more victims” coming forward to name their abuser, or anytime a new civil lawsuit is filed for monetary restitution and justice.

But what is actually happening is that survivors are realizing, in a flash, in an explosive moment, several things at once, things they might have vaguely known but never allowed themselves to consider:  “maybe I wasn’t the only one”; “I guess it wasn’t really my fault”; “maybe they’ll believe me now”—and similar sentiments.  Remember that when a child is abused, there is a kind of “splitting” that goes on in his or her mind, and the trauma and shame of the abuse often gets “parked” or “shoved away” into the recesses of the conscious mind, and some part of the child “decides” that the safest way to handle the fear, trauma, guilt and shame, is simply not to think about it.  And they don’t.  For decades, often.  And then, some triggering event happens, like the child abuse scandals in the Boy Scouts, the Catholic Church, the Mormon Church, or, now, Penn State.

Which brings me to the other fascinating thing I have noticed in “the Avalanche Dynamic: the closer to home is the triggering event, the more likely it is that the victim will break silence.  So I have had survivors come see me when their own abuser was publicly named, but not before, even if there has been much publicity about abuse in general. The Kerry Lewis case was one of those, where eight men eventually came forward to name their Mormon Church ward and the Boy Scouts for their abuse, after the first two brothers broke the silence of how they were abused by a Boy Scout leader in their Mormon Church troop.  One man came to see me in the midst of the Catholic scandals, when he took a job in a building across the street from the parish where he had been abused, and every day he had to listen to the churchbells ringing. He had been reading about priests abusing kids in Boston, and Chicago, and elsewhere, and he was not triggered.  But setting up professional shop across the street from the scene of his abuse, and he was jolted into breaking out of his silence. I have had Mormons come see me only when a story broke about abuse in the Mormon Church—despite any amount of publicity about abuse in the Catholic Church, or in the Boy Scouts.  I have had Boy Scouts call me, not when some event about abuse in Boy Scouts broke open, but when they read a story about their own abuser.  For whatever psychological reason, the fact is, that the closer is the trigger to their own story, the more likely survivors are to come forward and break their silence.  And so the Penn State story brought forward first, other Sandusky victims, then the victims at the Citadel, Syracuse, and the gymnastics context: all either related to sports, to academia, or both.  The trigger was close to home.

So, next time you read about an “avalanche” of survivors coming forward in response to a breaking new story of abuse in some new context—for instance, a major American University’s football program—don’t be surprised.  That’s how it happens.