We Believe You: The Words I Expected My Secular Community to Say to a Child Rape Victim
Trigger Warning: Child Sex Abuse, Intimate Partner Violence, Victim-blaming
April is Sexual Assault Awareness month. I was brainstorming blog topics for my annual awareness piece, and I came across a great post by Sarah Morehead on the Friendly Atheist about Jared Fogle and child sex abuse, or more specifically, a type of abuser – “the nice guy,” and her own family’s experience surviving after child sex abuse. The post really resonated with me. My abuser was also a “nice guy.” So nice that there were many, many people who didn’t believe me…wouldn’t believe that such a great guy would do the things I said he did, despite the evidence against him.
Sarah is local to me, and I have known her family through the local and national atheist scenes for years, so I requested an interview. I sat down with her in her spartan, but lovely home. We drank coffee, and her children played in the background. I was expecting to hear a different story – about how the local secular community came together to support her family when the ground fell out from below their feet, provided a meal for Thanksgiving dinner, or Yule presents for the kids. We had a totally different conversation – one that horrified me as a victim advocate.
How are you? How have your kids been coping since the news broke?
Well first of all, thank you for taking the time to reach out, it means a lot that the article resonated with you so much. I’ve gotten so much positive feedback from survivors who have disclosed abuse by “nice guys,” and it’s been a small glimmer of positive lining in all of this that anyone is able to feel empowered by the things we’re all learning as we go through this.
But this has been the most difficult experience of our lives. It’s tough – I have five kids at home, and everyone has their own needs and we’re all in different places emotionally. I am working hard to teach them to respect each other’s range of emotions, but it’s tough to navigate. Sometimes they’re sad, sometimes they’re relieved, sometimes they’re angry, sometimes they’re happy, but heartbroken is always just below the surface. We have a lot of family meetings, we play a lot of games, and we spend a LOT of time cuddling and making sure everyone feels loved.
The youngest kids aren’t aware of any frightening details beyond what their father told them before he left. We talk a lot about “safety teams,” which is what I call the agencies (police, judges, Child Protective Services, Health and Human Services, therapists, Victim/Witness, Project Harmony – our child advocacy center, etc.) involved in our life now. They know when a grown-up makes unsafe decisions that a “safety team” steps in, figures out what happened, and decides what is best for everyone involved. It’s really important to me that the kids trust the professionals involved. We are all too close to the forest to see the trees, in a sense, and they’re helping us get out of these woods.
For me, personally, it’s been devastating. My aunt became gravely ill last July and died in October, then this nightmare blew up shortly afterwards. My mom died when I was 12, so my Aunt was all I had. Losing her was like losing my mom all over again and it tore open a lot of old wounds. The abuse disclosure was shortly after her death, and I was already grieving, so the shock felt insurmountable. To deal with both at once was, and still is, almost too much to bear at times. Obviously we’re all in a lot of therapy, but it’s going to take a long time to stabilize and rebuild.
What’s been the most challenging part of rebuilding your lives?
So many things. Finding the new normal, which we’d just started to feel like we were managing in recent weeks. Being a solo parent with five kids, and the uphill road that will be over the next 15 years. Meeting their needs and finding positive adult role models for them, making sure they have someone to take care of them if anything happens to me…all of that keeps me up at night. I couldn’t have guessed how all-encompassing this is. Four of my kids deal with panic attacks and nightmares. I’ve spent many nights just holding as many of them as I could, crying along with them until we all fell asleep.
I guess if I have to pick one though, it’s the isolation. That’s made everything exponentially worse.
Isolation? Can you tell me more about that?
It’s tough to talk about because it’s just so incredibly painful. There have been weeks where my only adult contact has been the kids’ classes, our myriad of appointments. We lost everyone close to us when the disclosure happened, and the worst is seeing my child blame themselves for saying anything. I was out of town at the time, and when I reached my kids it quickly became so volatile that I was advised by the authorities to go into hiding. I reached out to people I thought I could trust, saying “I’m being told xyz happened to my child, and it’s not safe for us to stay, will you please help us get away while I figure out what’s going on.”
What was the response?
From our mutual friends, silence. The one mutual friend who did help later apologized to him (the accused), to my utter astonishment. He shared with me his conversations with these people, and I was blown away. Not only were we ignored, but my reaching out only fueled their resolve to help him. It was verbatim what I’d heard about, that this “didn’t sound like the guy they knew” and that he’s “not that kind of guy” and that somehow I could have “coached” this disclosure (from across the country, even). Another comment I saw with shocking frequency was people claiming that since they knew people who had been sexually abused, they believed they “would know” if allegations like this were true or false. Some of them even promised to “hold his hand” while he cancelled our bank cards, knowingly cutting me off from buying diapers or food while we were in hiding. He didn’t tell them he had already cancelled my cards days before, he just played along as if he hadn’t.
My child did what we, as a community, tell kids to do – she went to people she trusted for help. It was agony to go through Thanksgiving and Christmas completely alone while our lives imploded. These are people my kids trusted, people who I taught my kids to trust. It wasn’t that they did nothing, they actively supported him at the expense of the safety and sanity of my kids.
Was there ever a moment that you didn’t believe your child(ren)?
Never. But there’s a difference between “not wanting to believe” and not believing. I didn’t WANT to believe this was happening, of course. I wouldn’t wish this hell on my worst enemy, so seeing my kids go through this is torturous. There have been so many moments my heart stopped, and so many moments my heart broke into a thousand jagged, painful pieces, and I’m sure there will be more. But there was never a moment I didn’t believe them. The thing is, it’s not my job to decide what did or didn’t happen. There are literally teams of professionals and multiple agencies involved…it’s their job to make that decision. My job is to believe them.
What do you say to the people who say he’s innocent until proven guilty?
That’s a flippant response to a complex situation, and it’s not a reason to dismiss teams of trained professionals who have made the decisions they have to involve themselves in our lives. It also indicates to me that people think this is like TV – it’s not. This is a slow and detailed process where every facet of your entire life is exposed and examined repeatedly before they reach the point of even seeking a warrant, much less pressing charges.
The secular community doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to responding to victims of sexual violence, what kind of response did you expect when you went public with your family’s story?
This is a great question. I weighed in on the Jared Fogle assault because it really hit home for our family in a very personal way. I didn’t really expect much of a response at all initially, because I felt like the bigger issue was how to make it safer and easier for kids to tell that someone we all trusted has been abusing them. If it wasn’t for that, I don’t know that I would have said anything that publicly. It was hard enough losing the people we did, so the risk of being rejected or abandoned even more was too much.
I’m stunned to have seen board members of our local secular organization be so dismissive as to not even ask for, much less evaluate, any information besides what he provided – especially about charges so incredibly serious. I’m horrified at what message that sends to other survivors, and other victims who need help.
But beyond that, people have been amazing examples of selfless humanism in action. One friend literally dropped everything to drive down and be with us during the Forensic Interviews, which was the hardest thing as a mother that I’ve ever had to endure. Two others, both long distance as well, have made themselves available 24/7 to talk when life gets too much to handle alone. A childhood friend (who happens to be a Christian) saw the news and insisted on putting a fundraiser together for us, which resulted in messages of encouragement from around the world. People I’ve barely met or only know online have checked in on us and made sure we’re holding on. And even people who have been widely criticized for their responses to victim’s issues have reached out privately to reassure us that we are loved and supported, albeit from far away. When the silence is too deafening here at home, that encouragement has kept us going.
While Sarah mentioned how members of our secular community had abandoned her and accused her of making up the abuse, she was reluctant to name names, which is completely understandable, given that the accused hasn’t gone to trial. I investigated her claims, and didn’t need to do much digging, before reading some pretty vile posts.
Over the past week several people have made unsubstantiated public Facebook and Reddit posts and comments claiming, among other things, that Sarah had fabricated the allegations against her husband and coached her daughter to accuse him of abuse to draw attention away from herself and supposed criminal activity – embezzlement, welfare fraud, stealing from friends, and child neglect to name a few of their charges. Long diatribes full of emotionally charged personal attacks with no evidence to support them other than – “she told me herself” or “all will be revealed soon” – not disclosing that they, the people making these posts, not only had a close personal relationship with the accused child rapist, but also assisted him after he left the family home and while Sarah and her family were in hiding. And the public posts are just the tip of the ice berg. I read hundreds of messages, emails, posts, and comments, both public and private that made me want to vomit.
So much doesn’t make sense. If their motive was to accuse Sarah of criminal or fraudulent activity, why was this never reported to the police or Department of Health and Human Services? Why post about it on social media? If there was pending litigation, attorneys would advise against social media posts. Why is this coming out now? Before the alleged child rapist goes to trial – a trial hinging on a child’s testimony? If Sarah orchestrated the whole thing, what about the other victim who came forward – a person over whom Sarah has no control? What about the team of child advocacy experts and investigators, who conducted hours of interviews and collected the evidence necessary to charge the accused with not one, but five counts of child sexual assault? Were those experts in on it, too? And are the posters aware of the research regarding false allegations of child sexual abuse? False allegations are rare. Even in cases when victims recant, there’s often compelling evidence that the abuse happened and that the child was influenced by an adult to recant. To say I am skeptical about the timing of their claims about Sarah and her family is an understatement.
To give her accusers the benefit of the doubt, I sincerely hope that they didn’t anticipate that one of his victims, a child, would read their posts, read that people believe their rape didn’t happen (You are lying. WE DON’T BELIEVE YOU.), people they loved and trusted, and have their world fall apart again.
Sarah hasn’t responded to their accusations, mostly because she’s been instructed not to do so by prosecutors on the case. She doesn’t want to do or say anything that might hurt the state’s case. But she is torn, because these claims are horrible and could also damage the case when it goes to trial – providing the reasonable doubt the accused needs to go free. She doesn’t want the victims to feel afraid to testify or to be torn apart on the stand. She wants him to be held accountable. She can’t say a word.
I remember so clearly meeting with the prosecutor on my case. He asked me if there was anything that my husband knew about me that his defense team might use to attack my credibility or catch me off guard while on the stand. Did I use drugs? Did I cheat? Was I into kinky sex? Post naked pictures online? Lie on my taxes? I was mortified. Fortunately for me, the most damning evidence was that I was an atheist and a pro-choice feminist who used to work for an abortion provider. The prosecutor told me that this tactic is such an effective part of the “defense attorney’s playbook” that he sees it every time he goes to trial.
Why? People don’t want to believe that abuse can happen to them. People don’t want to believe that likable “nice guys” in their community – fathers, neighbors, friends – could also be rapists or abusers. People on the jury try to come up with any explanation. Enter victim blaming. She must be lying. Because if nice guys rape children or abuse women, it could happen to me…she must be lying.
I have since seen this firsthand in my own work with survivors. Abusers and rapists will do anything to discredit and intimidate their victims and when they don’t have access to them, they will use their friends to do it for them. I have heard so many stories, seen so many seemingly irrelevant pieces of evidence introduced at countless hearings – Facebook pictures, outrageous allegations, character testimony from friends and family members. You name it.
Your abuser will tell you that no one will believe you if you tell. But, worse, if you do tell (because that’s what good victims do), your abuser will tell everyone that you are not to be believed and their attorney will say just about anything to impeach your credibility. There is a reason that witness tampering is a crime…a crime that Ray Morehead was charged with once already.
As a survivor and an advocate, writing this story has been surreal. It was like reading about the Catholic Church sex abuse cover ups or the Penn State scandal. But the people involved are people I know. People in my secular community, who wanted so much to believe that a “nice guy” didn’t rape children that they willfully ignored evidence, told a child victim – “we don’t believe you” and spun a tale to discredit the one adult that child can still trust.
The response a child receives to disclosure of sexual abuse is crucial to their ability to recover and heal in the long-term. I am hopeful that the attacks on Sarah and her family stop. Because even if every outlandish claim they have made about her is true, which is impossible, it is not okay to throw a child rape victim under the same bus. It’s shameful, and I hope they are held accountable.
Update: Since we first spoke, Sarah was contacted by a well-known blogger in the secular community with several questions about alleged financial mismanagement at organizations where she previously volunteered. She believes (and hopes) that he is unaware of the relationship between those accusing her of wrongdoing and her husband and their actions following her child’s disclosure of sexual abuse. I have contacted him for comment and will publish his response.