CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Call it the Sandusky effect.
The child sex abuse scandal at Penn State University has set a ripple effect in motion, experts say. Nationwide, victims are stepping out and naming their alleged abusers, two or five or 20 years later.
It might be because they’re worried their abuser will harm others. It might be because constant media reports are causing them to relive their trauma. A lot of it concerns the spotlight on Penn State, lawyers and advocates for victims said.
A Charlotte lawyer who handles sex abuse cases also said he’s hearing from more victims. The Washington, D.C.-based Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) has seen a 50 percent increase in people seeking help on its online hotline since Sandusky’s November arrest, said hotline director Jennifer Marsh.
“Any time that this is a leading story in the news, we see an increase,” she said. “But even with the church sex abuse cases, we never saw as much of a spike as we did with this.”
Many of those contacting RAINN have been male victims of childhood sexual abuse, she said.
A number of those seeking help specifically mentioned the Penn State incident, in which former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was found guilty last month on 45 of 48 counts of sexual abuse against young boys over a 15-year period.
The Charlotte area this month has seen a number of highly-publicized cases involving alleged sexual abuse of children.
Recently accused are former Catawba College soccer coach Ralph William Wager, Hickory High School boys’ basketball coach Shawnacie Antoine Johnson, and Great Falls Elementary School teacher Richard Jayson Jones, among others.
‘A responsibility to protect others’
Seth Langson, a Mecklenburg attorney who handles sexual abuse lawsuits, said spikes like this seem to move in cycles influenced by news events.
He said more victims have come to him seeking legal action. One caller mentioned Penn State by name, he said.
“Penn State’s definitely influencing people,” he said. “More people were coming forward just after they aired the charges, and I think it’s only intensified since the Freeh report.”
The report, compiled by former FBI Director Louis Freeh, detailed Penn State officials’ knowledge of Sandusky’s acts.
“Victims often feel like they have a responsibility to protect others, and that feeling has come to the surface in light of what they’ve seen and read about at Penn State,” Langson said.
“The fact that they successfully prosecuted Sandusky and exposed a large amount of Penn State’s administrative behavior is giving people hope that even if abuse is happening for a long time, they can reach for justice.”
‘Victims feel guilty’
He said there is usually a lapse in time between sex crimes and reports, especially if the victim is young at the time of the assault.
“Victims feel guilty, or threatened, they feel nobody will believe you, or someone will destroy you if you step forward.” he said. “In the overwhelming majority of cases, victims take years or even decades to come forward.”
Anne Pfeiffer, executive director of Pat’s Place, said the Mecklenburg County child advocacy center is on track to evaluate about 100 more children this year than last.
“When people come forward, it does help others to come forward because they know they’re not alone – particularly when kids or adults come forward and are believed,” she said. “And that’s what the Penn State situation has shown us.”
Last year, the center assisted 375 children affected by abuse. This year, they’re on target to see between 450 and 500 children, Pfeiffer said.
“Definitely, some of this attention has helped folks to be a little more vigilant and thoughtful about what kind of situations their children are in,” she said. “Adults see some of the warning signs they may have missed and go ahead and report it.”
In North Carolina, there is no statute of limitations, meaning it’s never too late for a victim to step forward, Pfeiffer said.
Amanda Wilson, chief strategy officer at Charlotte-based United Family Services, said their Union County child advocacy center has seen about a 20 percent increase in patients. Last year, they served 120 children.
“We can’t directly correlate that increase to the Sandusky case, but we can deduce that the attention is having an effect on that,” she said.
‘It’s an epidemic’
She said when someone breaks into a car, it’s immediately reported as the crime it is. Sexual assault is associated more with more shame, which discourages victims, she said.
“It’s an epidemic in our country, and it’s happening in secret,” Wilson said. “When all these people are talking about it, it becomes less shameful.”
One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes, she said.
Wilson said there are many triggers that can prompt a victim to step forward, even decades later.
“It could be seeing the individual again, it could be that they just got to an age where they’re mature enough to handle coming forward, it could be that they’ve seen a movie or heard a song or talked to someone who made them realize the abuse was not okay,” she said.
Regardless of media cycles, Pfeiffer said she hopes the relentless attention on sexual abuse doesn’t die away.
“Our wish is that we are educating the community enough that folks are talking about this even absent a high-profile case,” she said. “Once the media attention goes away, we can’t afford as a community to not be vigilant.”