ELLSWORTH — You teach your kids to look both ways before crossing a street, to wash their hands and to wear a bike helmet, but have you talked to them about what to do if someone touches them inappropriately?
One in four girls and one in six boys will experience unwanted sexual contact before they turn 18, said survivor Mark Crawford, who is the president of the New Jersey chapter of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. “When you think about it, those are truly startling numbers.”
Crawford said some of the sexual abuse he received as a boy occurred at a Dedham camp around 1980. Crawford filed a complaint with the Hancock County Sheriff’s Office earlier this month. However, criminal charges cannot be brought against Crawford’s alleged abuser because the statute of limitations has expired, according to District Attorney Matt Foster.
Meanwhile, the law office of Greg Gianforcaro last month filed a civil suit against the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Newark on behalf of five men who say they were also molested by Crawford’s abuser.
Archdiocese spokeswoman Maria Margiotta issued the following statement: “It would be inappropriate to discuss or comment on matters in litigation. The Archdiocese of Newark remains fully committed to transparency and to our long-standing programs to protect the faithful and will continue to work with victims, their legal representatives and law enforcement authorities in an ongoing effort to resolve allegations and bring closure to victims.”
Crawford said parents often miss signs of abuse.
“I hear so often from parents, ‘They’ll tell me’ or ‘Oh, I’ll know,’” said Crawford. “No. That’s not the case.”
The average age of someone who reports having been sexually abused as a child is 52, Crawford said. “There are several things that will trigger someone abused in childhood to later come forward. Many of the victims I deal with begin to experience internal conflict or where the abuse re-emerges in their consciousness is when they have children and those children reach the age where they themselves were first abused.”
Something for parents and caregivers to remember. “Kids get signals from the people around them,” said Crawford. “How we respond either encourages that victim or young child to either seek help or shut down.”
Crawford said he told several authorities in the Catholic church about his abuse, but nothing was done.
Preparing your children is key.
“What’s most important is to empower your children with what’s right and wrong and the skills and self-confidence to say, ‘No,’” said Maine State Police Major Christopher Grotton, speaking recently from his office in Augusta. “They need to feel empowered and confident that they can say ‘No’ and [have a plan] for what they’re going to do if an adult doesn’t want to hear ‘No.’ Know when to go find an adult or a police officer.”
“We don’t want kids scared, but we want kids to understand we live in a world where things happen,” Grotton said.
The major said it’s hard to say whether there’s any pattern of behavior that parents should be aware of.
“The minute we say, ‘Look out for the guy in the white van,’ they’re not looking at the guy sitting on a park bench,” Grotton said. “When you see adults in an environment for kids, and they don’t have kids,” that may be a red flag.
“Folks need to trust their sixth sense,” said Grotton. “It’s not bad to call the police and say, ‘Here’s what I saw, and here’s the plate number.’ If your gut tells you something’s wrong, we’d rather have them call and let us look into it and maybe prevent a tragedy.”
Decide on a safe word with your children so that they know not to go with anyone who doesn’t know the word.
Crawford said a sign that something is wrong is if there’s an adult spending more time with your child than you are — or an adult with no children who has toys in his or her home.
Emotional and psychological torment goes along with the physical abuse, according to Crawford.
“The predators are extremely skilled,” he said. They will have their victims believe “it’s your guilt just as much as mine.”
“It’s really about power and control,” said Crawford. “Sex is what they use to keep you in control. It’s the how. It’s not the why. It’s the tool they use to keep you under their thumb. It causes a lot of confusion. When you’re a young adolescent, and someone touches you and it feels good and you respond — and your body is going to — there’s no stopping it. You can’t turn that off in a young teenager.”
“Kids that age, it causes a lot of confusion,” Crawford said. “Think of the guilt or shame that causes boys or girls to not have come forward. Victims develop very negative coping mechanisms. It almost always leads to different forms of addictions.”
Crawford will not rest in his fight to educate people about the scourge of childhood sexual abuse. He’s worked to get the statute of limitations lifted in the state of New Jersey. He also helped change a federal law about rape to include crimes against men.
Locally, there is help for educating children about sexual abuse through Aroostook Mental Health Center’s Sexual Assault Services. AMHC operates education programs for children in Hancock, Washington and Aroostook counties.
AHMC Community Educator Jessica Valdez said a book she uses in schools that can be used to help parents is called “Some Secrets Should Never Be Kept” by Jayneen Sanders.
“A safe adult will never ever ask you to keep a secret,” said Valdez, which is what she teaches children in the schools as well as her own. “Secrets don’t make us feel good.”
“The other thing: Listen to everything your kids are trying to talk to you about, which is really, really hard,” Valdez said. “If we don’t listen to that little stuff, they’re not going to come to us with that big stuff.”
Valdez also recommends a website called childrenssafetypartnership.org for more information.