Elaine's Story of Courage
My name is Elaine. Ten years ago, I knew very little about child sexual abuse. I had no personal experience with child sexual abuse. I did not know what the red flag behaviors displayed by many potential abusers were. Like many in our society, I did not realize that most abusers are not "monsters" as I previously had been told. I’ve learned, however, that they are everyday people from all walks of life. They are people that you most likely know and meet everyday and would never think that they would choose to abuse a child. They are people in our families, like Dennis, my husband of 35 years; a former military chaplain/minister, a well-respected member of the community, a loving husband, father and a kind, generous person. Unfortunately, he was not able to openly admit that he had a problem and needed help to deal with his sexual feelings and thoughts about children. Eventually he sexually abused several adolescent boys. It was a shock to our family and friends. But, as I look in the rearview mirror with my eyes open wide, I am better able to see the conditions for abuse developing gradually and realize now that there were opportunities for my husband – and others, including myself – to respond to these warning signs.
Throughout our marriage, Dennis was always a kid at heart. In his younger years he served as a Boy Scout leader. He had always been drawn to and was good at relating to adolescent and teenage boys. I had always seen it as a positive quality with no ulterior motives behind it. However, he often would tell me about his childhood; how he received little positive reinforcement and affection from his parents. I sensed that he had been a loner with few true friends. As a result, I always thought that he was sincerely trying to be the friend that he never had when he was young to many of the youth with whom he came in contact.
Things began to change, however, once he retired from the ministry. It was not a sudden or drastic change, but very gradual. He began to follow his dream to return to his roots in aviation. He was an excellent pilot and flight instructor, which boosted his self esteem immensely. He began giving free rides to people, hoping to get them interested in learning to fly. Eventually some teenagers were included among his students. Also, we lived in a neighborhood with lots of children and teenagers. He took particular interest in one 10 yr. old boy who did not have a father in his daily life He would often get together with him to watch a movie and would occasionally take him camping or on another overnight trip. As a familiar, trusted adult in the community, no one saw any reason to be concerned.
Eventually, I began to suspect that "something was wrong". I would ask him if everything was all right and he would assure me that it was. I began to notice that the attention he was showing to our neighborhood youth was becoming increasingly more frequent, causing me to be more convinced that there, in fact, was a problem. My suspicions were confirmed when the local police came to my door asking for my husband.
It would have been very easy for me to divorce myself from my husband and this horrible situation. However, I refused to demonize my husband, as many did, because I knew that his inappropriate actions did not reflect the whole person he really was deep inside. Yet, I still could not fathom why Dennis could allow himself to do what he did. I wondered why he couldn't tell me what was going on or what he was feeling. It made me extremely sad that he felt that he couldn't confide in me - I was his wife. But then, I imagined how hard it might be for me, if roles were reversed. Dennis recognized that he had a problem; he would question himself repeatedly as to what he was doing. But, he was unable to come forward and openly admit his problem. He didn't know where or how to get help. He was afraid...afraid that I would leave him...afraid of losing his friends...afraid of the legal consequences...afraid of fully realizing the harm he had caused.
I have sincerely tried not to minimize the harm that he inflicted nor rationalize his actions, but rather try to understand what factors led him to abuse these children. In my effort to understand, I found it helpful to think of it as a "perfect storm" scenario. When a vulnerable adult - one who is at risk to harm a child - finds a vulnerable child and has an available opportunity, abuse can more easily happen.
In addition, I have educated myself about the warning signs, or red flags, that give us all the ability to prevent abuse by recognizing and responding to them early on - before harm occurs. I have learned the various reasons or motivations that might cause adults to harm a child, including the fact that many who abuse have some degree of "minor attraction." I have learned about the role that social attitudes and mental health, particularly depression and addiction, play in perpetuating the problem. The most important thing I have learned through this experience is that many of the people who abuse children are not evil people... they are people who need help. They need help to recognize that their grooming behaviors or inappropriate behaviors toward children may be indicators of potential problems and precursors to abuse. They also need encouragement, support and to feel safe to seek out professional care before abuse occurs.
Abuse thrives when we remain silent, whether we are the abuser, the victim, a bystander or our entire society. The earlier we can intervene, the least likely it is that abuse will have already occurred. Isn't that what we really want - to prevent abuse before it has a chance to occur? I firmly believe that if we are willing to expand our prevention efforts to compassionately confront and care for individuals who are at-risk to offend, to "speak the truth in love," we will be able to prevent much more abuse from occurring. In doing so, we will save many more lives, not only those of the victims, but also of the families and the perpetrators, from the pain and consequences of abuse.