In a cold room a frail girl sits alone, her small hands resting on a frigid tabletop, her legs are shaking and her mind is racing. She isn’t sure why she’s here and the recording device seems to be staring her down. The door opens and a wave of panic rolls through her body as she puts on a brave face. A woman with a badge sits down in a chair across from her and places a manila folder on the table. Their eyes meet as they exchange hellos and the woman takes a deep breath, exhaling loudly. There was a kindness in her eyes but the girl knew it meant nothing; that everyone, no matter how kind they seemed, were capable of evil. The woman tells her of another child who claims to be the casualty of a monster. The other child claims that a man has done terrible things to her, that he has robbed her of her innocence. As his name rolls off the woman’s tongue, the girl’s heart stops, the blood that was wildly coursing through her veins turns to ice in an instant. There must have been some sort of flicker in her eyes because the woman leans forward, suddenly intrigued. The room seemed to be flooding with water, giving her no chance escape, the walls rapidly closing in. Stop it, her mind tells her body, pull it together and get through this. She takes a deep breath and resumes eye contact with the woman with the badge. The woman tells her that they have some concerns – that the other child is possibly seeking attention with her exaggerated story. She tells her that the child is a talented swimmer from another swim team in another town along the coast. The girl thought he had moved far away, but he had no fear despite fleeing in the night under a cloud of suspicion. The woman wants any information that the girl can give her about this man. The girl’s mind is in a panic, the tug of war in her head is unbearable. What is she supposed to do? She could let it all out – how he exploited the horrors she endured at home, the secrets she shared while seeking his help. How he held them ransom in exchange for her silent participation in his twisted games. Yes, she could let it all out, but how could she trust anyone again? What if they didn’t believe her? Where was he? Did the man know that she was talking to the police? He made a promise to her if she told, and he would surely keep it. After all, she didn’t know the girl who came forward – was she worth putting her life on the line for? She knew what she would do. She would tell the woman what everyone at the pool already knew. The inappropriate contact, the dinners, the gifts, the verbal abuse – the things people knew but were too afraid to do anything about. It had to be enough for them to know he was capable of these horrible acts. So she told her stories to the woman across the table, giving just enough information without letting her guard down. The tug of war in her mind stopped and her survival instinct had finally won. The woman thanked her and told her that they had everything they needed.
As she pushed the door open, the sunlight blinded her and excruciating remorse poured over her. In her mind she was running back in, telling them everything, but she couldn’t do it. Instead, she went to her car, where she sat, her chest pounding with fear, her mind screaming at her that she was a coward. She always had been. Too scared and frail to stand up to her parents, to stand up to her coach, and too scared to help this girl when she needed her. As she sat there alone, she told the girl that she was sorry that no one believed her, that she was too afraid to come forward. She told her that she was brave and asked for her forgiveness. Furiously wiping the mascara-stained tears from her cheeks, she sat up straight and told herself that she had done all she could. Despite multiple accounts from parents and children of inappropriate contact between the coach and young team members, he was not brought back to face charges.
10 years passed before I read in the papers that the other child who had come forward had been my teammate and my close childhood friend. My ex-swim coach went on to molest more victims for nearly a decade before he was finally caught. I also learned that his previous employer had not been contacted during the hiring process. One phone call would have saved at least seven girls from the life sentence of sexual abuse. The pain that I carry from years of abuse is unimaginable. The burden of guilt for not telling the whole story when I was 19 is even worse. There were so many ways this could have been prevented, so many people who could have stepped in before more lives were destroyed. Due to a pattern of turning a blind eye, this serial pedophile was able to abuse young girls for three decades. Unfortunately there was more concern for hurting his reputation than there was for stopping a monster.
Pedophiles prey on children who are broken, or children whose parents do not play an active roll in their lives. They also prey on children whose parents who will do anything in order for their children to succeed. About 15% of sexual predators are athletic coaches who are in an authoritative position. They gain the trust of the parents and have easy access to young children. Many predators groom their victims by buying them gifts, giving special praise, and other manipulative behaviors.
As parents we give the “good touch, bad touch” talk in elementary school but a lot of us don’t have the discussion again as our children mature. Talk with your children about inappropriate behavior, show them that they can trust you enough to come to you if they feel uncomfortable around someone. It could make the difference in the abuse happening once, or it happening hundreds of times. My advice to parents is to be informed, make your presence known, and speak up if you feel that something is off. Know who your children’s coaches are, ensure that a full background check was done and that previous employers were contacted. In order to protect our children we must educate ourselves about the people who are spending time with them. And most importantly, attend practices and games- be present in your children’s lives.
Do not be afraid to be vigilant. it is our duty as mothers to ensure our children’s safety.