Bravery in the Witness Box


They’re all different, the men who come forward to tell their stories of childhood sexual abuse. But they all share a debilitating horror.

Psychologists say it is difficult for any childhood victim of molestation to reveal what happened to them. But it is particularly tough for young males because it goes to the very core of their budding manhood. Often, males choose to keep it secret rather than seek help to deal with the emotional problems that always occur.

So, when these victims muster up enough courage to speak, I think it’s high time we start praising them. They are the ultimate moral whistleblowers in our society, helping to keep children safe by identifying, convicting and removing child molesters from our midst.

I also think it’s time we understand what happens when these brave souls finally begin to talk. They reveal only when they feel safe, and they disclose details of their abuse in stages.

Every criminal trial I’ve covered involving an accused pedophile also has a defense attorney who pounces on the accuser for how their stories evolved once they began talking to people in authority — child protective services workers, police officers and grand juries. The defendant’s attorney criticizes because they know that in the beginning the victims are vulnerable.

When the accusers first disclose, they may say that only fondling occurred. The next time they are interviewed — if they feel safe with the interviewer — they will divulge more. They may subsequently admit there was oral activity or actual penetration. As time passes and they are able to mentally distance themselves from their molester, their full story flushes out.

Yet, in court the accusers are routinely attacked for not telling the whole story from the very beginning. It’s just not fair, and it’s counterintuitive to the way the real-life world of victim reporting works. Experts will confirm abused and untrusting people never sit down and blurt out their whole horrible experience, in part because in the beginning they don’t understand it themselves. They ask themselves: “Why didn’t I scream ‘No!’ from the get-go? Why did I voluntarily return to the abuser? Why didn’t I seek protection from someone at home or school? What is the matter with ME?”

Think to yourself: What’s your deepest, darkest secret? Now, can you imagine how difficult it would be to repeatedly tell strangers about it? Detectives, mental health workers, prosecutors and then, ultimately, jurors at a trial.

At the Bellefonte, Pa., trial of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, I’ve watched this legally sanctioned witness attack (disguised as cross-examination) occur yet again. This is not to say I think accusers shouldn’t face tough questioning. Of course they should. But manufactured red herrings should be excluded.

I wish every child sexual abuse trial could begin with easy-to-understand expert testimony from mental health professionals so jurors could really understand a victim’s reporting mentality. Jurors should be made aware that evolving facts in a victim’s sworn statement should be put into perspective.

And one more thing that, frankly, all of us need to understand. There is no one way a victim is supposed to act. You can’t always tell from the outside what a person is suffering on the inside. At the Sandusky trial, there are no actual “victims” until the jury declares there are victims. There are only accusers at this stage of the game, and Jerry Sandusky is to be considered completely innocent.

But I was struck by the different demeanor of each of those who took to the witness box. Some were feisty during their testimony; some were so quiet they were told to speak up so the jury could hear them. And then there was the 18-year-old young man who just graduated from high school who has been waiting three long years — and has testified at three grand jury proceedings — for his justice so he can get on with his life. The moment he stepped into the courtroom, observers could tell from his tortured body language he was a damaged soul. He sobbed through his testimony and spoke of the anxiety attacks he suffers — and I was among those in the gallery left wondering if he will ever mature into a complete and happy adult. He is a hero in my book.

We like to think we’ve got a handle on child molesters and their victims so we can wave our hands and declare that we need hear no more about it. Cases like the coach Sandusky trial are “too ugly to hear,” as I heard one network news executive say recently. As if it’s just not fashionable to discuss.

That is nonsense. This is very important stuff for generations to come. We can stamp out the cyclical scourge of pedophilia if we put our minds to it — but that will never be achieved if we keep burying our heads in the sand because it’s “too ugly.”

The pretty part of it comes when we realize we have a justice system that is more primed now than ever to deal with these cases. Let’s encourage everyone to understand it and use it so that everyone benefits.

Rockland resident Diane Dimond is a syndicated columnist, author and correspondent for Newsweek/Daily Beast. Visit her at reach her via email

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