Sex Abuse of Athletes: ‘Don’t Tell’ is No Longer an Option

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Why didn’t someone say something?”

“It’s been going on for so long!”

At one point or another, those two sentences become part of the debate following every high-profile case dealing with child sexual abuse. Put another way, they incorporate two difficult questions that together pose a dilemma about the reporting of such cases.

  •  Why didn’t the victim speak out immediately after the abuse?
  •  Why didn’t anyone with knowledge of the abuse report it to law enforcement?

Many of the reasons why a victim remains silent have been analyzed by prosecutors and psychologists. They include: mental anguish, fear of retaliation (“they said they would hurt me or my family if I told”), fear of a family breakup (assuming dad was the abuser), shame, and embarrassment. The list goes on.

But when a victim finally takes that bold step and reports a teacher, member of the clergy, doctor, father, mother, stepfather or coach, a difficult decision emerges for those who are told about it.

What do you do with the information once you have it?

The question becomes pertinent when it comes to the “reporting laws”—something few people are aware of. There were many times when, as a prosecutor with the Broward County (Florida) Sex Crimes Unit, I had a case where a parent came forward years later and says “I knew it was going on, but I decided not to tell because I didn’t want the perpetrator to go to jail; I just wanted him/her to get some help.”

Most people do not realize that their state has mandatory reporting laws on the books which outline who, what, where and when they have to disclose this very sensitive information.

Stacey Honowitz

Stacey Honowtz

Nevertheless, we very rarely hear about such laws unless a big case is “fish-bowled” by the press and involves sexual abuse allegations of a huge magnitude, involving a number of victims or affecting a college, church, high school, a national organization, or athletic group.

Then, and only then, do we focus on who knew—and didn’t tell.

The media focuses on these cases because they are newsworthy, salacious, and attention- grabbers. We’ve learned from both the Jerry Sandusky case at Penn State, and now the Larry Nassar case, that people knew, and that people held on to that information because they felt they weren’t “required” by law to disclose. Others just felt that the victims were not to be believed. In either case the law—and questions about who else should be held criminally responsible—now take center stage, because the perpetrator is behind bars. In every state the laws are different, and in order to determine liability it becomes necessary to analyze what conduct is to be reported and who is responsible for making a report.

Lastly, the state laws spell out what penalty will be assessed if that law is violated.

While I am making generalizations about each state, here’s the bottom line: there is little uniformity among the states as to who has a duty to report. Certainly in most states there are such things as “mandatory “reporting laws, where statutes specifically list who “must” report. That includes doctors, teachers, psychiatrists, and psychologists.

The statutes are also very clear as to where one should report: either the child protective services or law enforcement or, in some cases, to both. The problem with a lot of these statutes is that the meaning of the words creates confusion. People who don’t report typically say, “I don’t fit into that category;” and it becomes a matter of “does a coach, qualify as a teacher, or as a school administrator”?

The laws vary from state to state, and the requirements of who and where to report have caused so much concern that some states now require that anyone that has information about sexual abuse make a report to either Child Services or law enforcement.

The ambiguity, as it relates to America’s young athletes, has now been eliminated by the federal government.

Last March, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) introduced the “Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sport Authorization Act.” Passed by both the House and Senate a week after gymnastics coach Larry Nassar was sentenced, it now awaits the president’s signature.

The bill, aimed at preventing “the sexual abuse of minors and amateur athletes by requiring the prompt reporting of sexual abuse to law enforcement authorities,” requires officials in a wide variety of amateur sports, including gymnastics, to report abuse allegations to law enforcement and social services.

Here’s the specific language:

All members of the national governing body or facility under the jurisdiction of the national governing body, and adults authorized by such members to interact with minor or amateur athletes to immediately report all allegations of sexual abuse to law enforcement and other appropriate authorities, when they learn of facts leading them to reasonably suspect that a minor or amateur athlete has suffered an incident of sexual abuse.

The Act also authorizes the Center for Safe Sport, which has jurisdiction over groups like the United States Olympic Committee, to make sure that athletes can report allegations of abuse to an independent organization.

Prior to this bill, many states that didn’t recognize who should report abuse of athletes. Amateur sports normally have their own governing bodies, and reports of abuse just went to them and not to law enforcement. Policies and procedures among the governing bodies would sometimes “leave out” where the information should travel once it was brought to their attention.

Now, the governing bodies no longer get to decide. Abuse must be reported to law enforcement, and failure to report will subject the sports governing boards to criminal or civil penalties.

In other words, “talking among ourselves” just isn’t going to cut it anymore.

If you recall, in the Sandusky case, there were emails between the coaches specifically covering up the allegations with specific directive not to report them to law enforcement.

Well, we should be tired of the excuses and secrets. We should be tired of the sport becoming a priority to the victim. And we should be tired of reading about people who perpetuated the abuse because they did not report to the proper authorities.

We’ve waited for this bill far too long.

Sexual abuse has been around for a long time, and will probably never go away, but now we won’t see questions like “what should we do about this?” when a disclosure is made.

Why focus on “athletic abuse” and reporting? We know that kids love to get involved in sports. We know that from those little kids, well-trained elite athletes are born. We know that trainers and coaches sometimes spend the most time with these kids, and often have unsupervised access.

The betrayal of trust that occurs when a child is abused is immense, and the betrayal is made worse when it is committed by the person who is supposed to be your biggest champion.

Multiply that feeling with finally having the guts to talk about it, and it falls on deaf ears.

Stacey Honowitz is a 30-year veteran prosecutor dedicated to the Sex Crimes & Child Abuse Unit at the Broward County (FL) State Attorney’s office, where she is supervisor. A frequent legal commentator on network television, she is the author of “My Privates are My Private” and “Genius with a Penis Don’t Touch,” Honowitz is also known for investigating and prosecuting the predecessor to Larry Nassar, Raymond Adams, also an elite gymnast coach and convicted sex offender-pedophile. Readers’ comments are welcome.

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