Last week I wrote about how bothered I was with Jim Boeheim’s adamant and unconditional support of assistant coach and friend Larry Fine, immediately protesting the child molestation charges he faces. Having worked in mental health for almost 20 years, and having been a counselor to countless families involved in child-abuse/molestation cases, this story bothered me terribly from the moment it broke — Jim Boeheim’s actions only made it worse. Rather then try to understand the situation, Boeheim showed no sympathy and instead attempted to make the accuser look like a greedy fool, all the while claiming undeniable innocence for Larry Fine.
Unfortunately, ESPN provided even more evidence that Larry Fine did in fact molest boys, releasing an audio tape yesterday of Fine’s wife acknowledging his problems (and that’s putting it lightly if you heard the tape), as well as a third victim who has also claimed Fine molested him. While still presumed innocent (like Jerry Sandusky), the increasing amount of evidence stacking up against him doesn’t look good.
Fortunately, Jim Boeheim’s comments today are far more sensitive in nature, even if they are late:
“The allegations that have come forth today are disturbing and deeply troubling. I am personally very shocked because I have never witnessed any of the activities that have been alleged. I believe the university took the appropriate step tonight. What is most important is that this matter be fully investigated and that anyone with information be supported to come forward so that the truth can be found. I deeply regret any statements I made that might have inhibited that from occurring or been insensitive to victims of abuse.”
Where Boeheim still falls short
While I appreciate Boeheim’s more caring remarks, I still have concerns with some of what he said. We can all learn from both, and use the knowledge to be better equipped to help kids who suffer from sexual abuse.
Boeheim claimed he “never witnessed any of the activities.” Unfortunately, just because we do not see something with our own eyes doesn’t mean it didn’t happen (of course, it doesn’t mean it happened, either). The important point is to distinguish the difference between actually seeing something and being open to the fact that some things in life really do happen – even if we don’t see it firsthand. Boeheim’s initial comments asserting there was no way the crimes happened were very different than simply stating “I don’t know.” Rather than being open, he was defensive. Think for a moment how you might feel if a legendary coach like Boeheim denied your claims of being sexually abused? If you are a parent, how might you feel if your child were abused, and the coach immediately struck out against your child as a money-seeking troublemaker?
Coincidentally, another legendary coach, Dick Vitale, didn’t make things any better with his absent-minded tweet on Monday, stating: “Based on what he was told he was reacting on info he had – now he knows better.” This is unacceptable, and Dick is smart enough to know better. Enough with the enabling – Dick would never be this causal if it were his kid who made these kinds of claims about an adult sexually abusing him.
A teachable moment
Fortunately we can learn from all of this – and thereby protect kids more effectively – by simply being open-minded when these kinds of terrible charges are alleged. To assume the victim is lying is betting against the odds, as it is well established in mental health communities that when victims of sexual crimes speak out, they are almost always being truthful to at least some, if not all, of what they report. Note that by taking this position you are not accusing the suspect, but instead balancing your personal relationship against the safety of a child (who could be yours).
When we come into rumors and stories about children being abused, we are often put into very uncomfortable positions about how to react and respond. In some cases we might know the accused person very well, while in other cases we might simply find the claims impossible to be true (often because we don’t want the story to be true). Unfortunately, there are too many cases of these crimes in our country today for us to be delayed in our actions because of these reasons.
Most victims of sexual abuse do not speak up, but that doesn’t mean these problems do not exist. Often the victims do not report the crimes because of their own confusion, shame, and embarrassment, while also realizing that their charges may lead to the abuser losing his job, his family, and possibly even face prison time. It is for both the personal issues the victim experiences coupled with the likely consequences that will occur for the abuser if the victim speaks that often lead to years of silence.
Sex abuse in sports
Kids involved in sports may be the most at-risk for sexual abuse by a coach. Just how many kids are sexually abused by coaches each year is impossible to gauge, as most stories go unreported. Still, a simple Google search reveals more stories than we would like to ever imagine, providing ample proof of a growing problem in the United States today.
Young athletes may be vulnerable for a couple reasons. First, the fraternal bonding that often occurs in sports can sometimes blur lines between appropriate and inappropriate relationships. Jerry Sandusky made many comments about “horsing around” that were perceived as way over the line to most people who heard his interview with Bob Costas, providing a case study to support this hypothesis.
A second potential issue may be locker rooms, a unique place for sports where some sexual crimes take place. Unlike other child experiences that are not physical in nature (i.e. band, art, theater, etc.), locker rooms expose kids physically.
A third issue may be how some kids, especially those from troubled backgrounds, innocently bond with coaches acting as mentors who may in fact be pedophiles. While it is disturbing to think of, some men who coach (or serve in other mentoring capacities) do prey on the close bonding they can establish by providing care (and sometimes gifts) as a means of leading to a future sexual assault.
Quick tips to protect kids
If a child speaks to you about being sexually abused, try to do the following:
- Don’t judge, but instead listen. While the accused person may be a friend (or even family member), it is important that you listen to the victim before immediately racing to judgement and/or protecting someone simply because you like the person.
- Accept the victim, and for the time being assume what he is saying is in fact true. You can always change your mind later if the story proves to be false, but as was mentioned earlier in the article, in most cases of these types of reports the kids have been found to be truthful. It is also important to immediately report what you have learned to the police.
- Support the victim and praise the child for being strong enough to speak out. Not only will this attitude help the process, but it will be encouraging for the child to know that his actions may very well be the reason why kids in the future will not be victimized by the perpetrator.
Kids who are victimized in sexual crimes almost always end up battling a lifetime of healing from the trauma they experienced. Of course, eliminating all sex abuse crimes may not be possible, but we can certainly reduce these cases by not doing what Jim Boeheim did.