After many years in this business, it was a brilliant young Army JAG who showed me an entirely different way of viewing the “delayed report” we almost always see in sexual violence cases.
“When you consider that most victims never report at all,” she said, reasoning this out beautifully at a training we were conducting together, “then delaying is actually natural. What’s unusual is when a victim is actually compelled to report, almost always after some time passes. That’s usually because something triggers it, right?”
“Correct,” I said, knowing that disclosure is a process, and one usually triggered, exactly as she put it, by any number of stressors or circumstances.
“So we should be calling them triggered reports, not delayed reports.”
Bingo, Captain. I could not have said it better. And I didn’t. She did.
The national lexicon on this subject, to the extent it’s been expanded sadly but usefully by Sandusky, should lead the courts into the 21st century as well. Delay in reporting any sexual violence case is more than common- it’s all but assured in most cases. Exceptions are the horrific but much rarer cases of stranger rape, the traditionally viewed crime that systems take to take much more seriously and that we hold victims the least responsible for. For those reasons among others, victims of stranger rape- an attack in parking garage by a masked assailant, for instance- are usually reported immediately. Many people equate an immediate cry for help with proof that a crime occurred rather than some sexual encounter now regretted. But in stranger cases, the prosecution usually has that anyway- the circumstances almost always suggest that no consent occurred.
Vastly more common are sexual violence cases where perpetrator and victim know one another, whether for a matter of hours in a bar or for years in a trusted, familial or mentoring relationship. It’s these cases that produce the urge not to cry for help (in both children and adults) but instead to turn inward in order to process so much more. Why did this happen? How much of it was my fault? Is it really abuse/was it really rape anyway? Who would believe me? What will happen to my family, my life if I tell anyone?
The questions go on. And on. The perpetrators, like Sandusky, know exactly how this process will play out. They know that in most cases, whether the victim is a child or an adult, the calculus will work in their favor. The victim will tell no one, let alone the police. There’s too much shame associated with what happened. Too much self-blame. Too much continued fear. Too deep a feeling of helplessness. This is changing as awareness of the dynamics of victimization increases. But slowly.
In Pennsylvania, a jury instruction must still be read to jurors (and was in Sandusky) that allows them to potentially discount the validity of “certain sexual offenses” because an ordinary person would be expected make a prompt complaint. Where this antiquated logic came from is no mystery. What’s mysterious is that Pennsylvania continues to tolerate an instruction for its jurors that lacks even a passing acquaintance with reality.
I don’t know what exactly triggered in Matt Sandusky the decision to reveal the fact of his abuse to investigators during the trial itself. But I am confident that a triggered and valid report is what it was. He was, for a time, included in a circle of witnesses expected to testify on Sandusky’s behalf. Maybe that constituted a final burden that the man could simply not bear, after silently bearing so much for so long.
Few places are lonelier than the heart of a survivor living with sexual abuse, or having been the victim of a sexual attack, who feels he or she can’t reveal it. The struggle is titanic, and usually the decision is made to simply bear the abuse and move on. Again, this is changing, but slowly. And survivors who decide to remain silent are blameless for it and should never be judged. But when a trigger finally does compel a survivor to speak out, the mere fact of a delay in the interim should not cast doubt on it.