Remaining silent about suspected abuse: 5 common fears

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Fear - courtesy of The Wardrobe Door

Fear - courtesy of The Wardrobe Door

Have you ever been afraid to say something that needed to be said?

Not long ago, a friend was staying overnight with a family during an out of town visit. That evening, the family had a group of friends and acquaintances over for dinner and conversation. Sometime during the dinner, one of the male guests got up from dinner and sat in the adjoining living room.   During and after dinner, my friend observed this male guest remain in the living room talking and playing with the elementary age son of the guests. At first, my friend did not think anything of the fact that this young man was spending time with this boy. However, as the evening went on, my friend realized that the attention of this adult was focused exclusively upon this child as they played on the couch together, touched each other’s faces, and engaged in other seemingly “innocent” physical contact. At some point, my friend became troubled with the ongoing contact between this guest and the child.   After dinner, my friend overheard the young man invite the boy to follow him to the (dark) basement to go hide during a game of hide and seek. At this point, my friend became conflicted about whether she should say something to the boy’s parents or simply leave the situation alone.

My friend’s predicament is not unique. In the past 20 years, I have come across many situations where folks  have found themselves conflicted about whether to say something after observing unsettling behavior between an adult and a child.  Unfortunately, too many have decided it’s best to remain silent. A silence that is all too often fueled by fear. Here are five common fears that can convince us to “leave the situation alone”:

Fear of being wrong: We fear that we could be wrong since no blatant abuse was observed. We second-guess our instincts and all too often convince ourselves that our worries are unfounded.   We decide it’s best to remain silent.

Fear of being right: We fear the incredibly dark possibility that someone we actually know may be grooming a child for abuse. Such depravity is too much for us to comprehend and is much easier to deny. We decide it’s best to remain silent.

Fear of being ignored: We fear that our concerns will be ignored by those who refuse to believe that suspecting adult could possibly have had any sinister motives for their behavior. In her book, Predators, psychologist Anna Salter writes,

“…those who see child molesters as monsters seem the quickest – when their neighbor, friend, or family member – to say that it is definitely a false report.”

We decide it’s best to remain silent.

Fear of losing a friend: We fear that  the suspecting adult will be extremely angry and want nothing to do with us when they find out that we’ve expressed concerns. Nobody likes to lose a friend, especially over mere concerns. We decide it’s best to remain silent.

Fear of losing a community: We fear that those in our community will blame us for any “negative” fallout as a result of sharing our “baseless” concerns. Dr. Salter writes, “But it is a misconception that child molesters are somehow different from the rest of us, outside their proclivities to molest. They can be loyal friends, good employees, and responsible members of the community in other ways. “  Thus, we fear being accused of being “out of line” and being told to be silent or face being discredited and ostracized. We decide its best to remain silent.

Fear - courtesy of The Wardrobe Door

Fear – courtesy of The Wardrobe Door

These are not fears of concern for a vulnerable child, but fears concerning the relatively safe inconveniences we may experience by speaking up.  Such fears are self-centered and misplaced.  Such fears can contribute to the harm of children.  Our greatest fear should be what could happen if we decide it’s best to remain silent.

Should our fear of being wrong stop us from taking steps to protect a child who may be being groomed for abuse?

Should our fear of being right stop us from exposing the dark motives of one who appears to be so “innocently” paying attention to a child?

Should our fear of being ignored stop us from helping a little one realize that someone actually cared enough to pay attention and step forward to protect them?

Should our fear of losing a friend really stop us from expressing concerns about the safety and well-being of a child?

Should our fear of losing our community stop us from providing children a community of safety when people like you and I decide it’s best to speak up?

During that overnight stay, my friend decided to take a bold step out from the shadow of silence and tell the young boy’s parents of her concerns about the young man’s behavior she had been watching all evening. Not only did the grateful parents immediately take steps to protect their boy, but they were so overjoyed at her willingness to say something that they immediately informed many of their friends about the importance of speaking up to protect children.

Any fears my friend may have had that evening about sharing her concerns were quickly eclipsed by the joy and peace of knowing that a little boy had possibly been spared from the horrors of sexual abuse.  That is a joy and peace I long for more of us to experience as we reject the fear of silence by stepping forward to protect children, regardless of the consequences.


  • Thank you for this. I would not have my sexual abuse story had an adult dared to get over their fear or their discomfort and intervene. I needed a hero, but I didn’t get one, though many adults had the opportunity to see what was happening. They simply chose not to see.

  • Chaz

    I agree! My abuse story wouldn’t have happened if mandatory reporters had actually reported after several people stepped forward and told my pastor stuff, who just checked with the offender and his sister and concluded it was fine!
    I have a question though, that same pastor has had other children’s parents come forward and tell him that their children have complained of a different man (a church sunday school teacher) that has done stuff like massages, commenting how good they look in bikini’s, has girls hang out at his house, and lots of other stuff that isnt technically illegal, but very creepy, and he always is being close to little girls in a creepy way, doing things with them, spending time with them, and it is very creepy. and ONLY girls i should add, he has not gone out of his way at all to be friends with my son, but wont let a girl within 20 feet of him without forcing a hug out of her.The parents didnt report it to law enforcement because they didnt feel that anything was illegal, and now they wont. the pastor just met with the guy and decided it was all fine and wont report it and just jokes about “how things can be taken the wrong way” (in child safety meetings i might add, along with how we need to report stuff to him and he will check into it first and then report it, which he never does!). Is there anything I can do? I have not heard of anything illegal, the girls wont want to talk about the stuff, parents either, and since nothing illegal has come out, if feel like i would just be telling the cops that i feel like this guy is a creep. any ideas on what i can actually do or should do?

  • The Great God Pan

    I can think of some cases in which heeding the “fear of being wrong” could have saved a lot of public money, court time, heartache, public humiliation and unjust prison sentences:

    But then I’ve always been “self-centered” that way. If only we were all selfless enough to participate in witch hunts, mass hysteria and moral panics, the world would be a better place.

  • Oscar

    Can you have a discreet word with friendly police officer (perhaps a female) and put your concerns on the table. It doesn’t have to be an official allegation, but it will put the person concerned on the radar, so to speak and there could well be a history of offending or other complaints already laid. Also worth mentioning to the police officer is the lack of concern/intervention by the pastor, under some jurisdictions a duty of care goes with such positions to report potential/actual child abuse that comes to notice.

    The tell tale signs are already there and what you are seeing in public might only be the tip of the iceberg of what is going on behind closed doors, which is generally where this behaviour goes, if not stopped. Note also that this suspected offender has attained a role that puts him in contact with children, this is also a warning sign.

    Educate your children about paedophiles and open up the channels of communication. Tell them what is appropriate and inappropriate behaviour with adults and most importantly that you will always listen to them when they raise their concerns.

  • Susannah

    The fear is perpetuated by poor policy. PBS newshour will broadcast today 16 February 2015 on an investigation undertaken by Trey Bundy looking at over a 1000 documents that show how Jehovah’s Witnesses have covered up and refused to co-operate with the courts regarding child molestation. This is not hysteria it is ongoing. Fear of not having “eternal life” has meant children have been denied help. The culture of trust provides the space for pedophiles to operate. The policies that say child abuse is a sin not a crime allows the abuse to continue. Abusers may be kicked out for a short time but are welcomed back if they show repentance. The cycle of molestation begins again.

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