The Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse trial began today and many of his “alleged” victims will be taking the stand during the prosecution phase of the trial.
The boy’s childhood photos were shown this morning in court. The accusers are now grown adult men. But those men will not be testifying in the case. When those victims get on the stand, it will be the little boys who will be telling their stories –the little boys who were groomed, molested, raped, traumatized, and told to keep quiet.
“Curtis St. John suppressed the memories of his sexual abuse as a 10-year-old for more than two decades. Then as an adult, he went public with his story for the first time, testifying against a once-respected middle school teacher who abused him over summer break in 1979.
St. John steeled himself to do what former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky’s accusers will do as early as this week: Re-live publicly the horrifying abuse they say they faced as boys in front of a room of strangers. The men known only as “Victim” in court documents and media reports will be named.”
Notice the word “re-live” is very close to “relieve.” By re-living trauma, betrayal, and abuse, victims can help relieve themselves of many aspects of the pain.
“There’s a terrifying vulnerability to being so exposed. When he finally stepped forward to testify in a New York hearing deposition in 2002, St. John was stoic as he was peppered with intricate and personal questions from a defense desperate to find holes in his story. His only moment of weakness came when his lawyer took out a photograph of him as a fifth-grader in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Only then did he cry.”
He cried when he realized he was that little boy and he was crying for the child inside himself who was so badly wounded.
“For St. John, the experience was cleansing, the first step to healing a wound that had been infected for most of his life. Experts in child abuse say testifying against an abuser can be empowering and therapeutic for a victim, though that’s not absolute.
Connell O’Brien, a children’s policy specialist at the Pennsylvania Community Provider’s Association, said the benefit of testifying is situational, depending on the victim’s support system and how far along he or she is in recovery from the trauma.”
It also depends on the reaction of those who hear the victim’s story. The victim will do much better psychologically if people don’t accuse them of “making up stories to gain money or attention,” or ask the victim, “If you were abused, why didn’t you tell anyone?”
The victim’s progress in healing also depends upon the defense attorney’s level of abuse in questioning the victim, the jury’s visible reaction during their testimony, and ultimately, the verdict.
“Being able to confront your abuser, to no longer feel powerless, is very important,” he said. “However, because the judicial system is an adversarial one, there will be an effort by the defense to blame the victim, to what is often a retraumatization experience.”
If anyone in the general public, the media, or the defense blame the accusers for anything that happened with Sandusky, this could potentially cause them to be re-traumatized for sure. It really does depend on the level and amount of therapy the victims have had so far.
“Lawyers for some of Sandusky’s accusers had asked that their clients be allowed to testify under a false name, but the request was denied. One attorney filed an affidavit from a psychologist that said the public disclosure could “lead to further feelings of shame and humiliation and trigger symptoms associated with post traumatic stress disorder.”
On the other hand, using their real names will probably turn out to be more liberating than they realize. Hiding behind a false name says, “I am ashamed about what happened. I did something wrong.”
“Dr. Howard Fradkin, a psychologist who has counseled more than 1,000 male victims of sexual abuse, said the moments in the courtroom will be emotional and potentially traumatic for the Sandusky accusers, but hopes “they will be able to look back on this as a very healing and empowering experience.”
“My hope is that they will continue to find or have therapeutic support and that will increase the possibility that it will be a positive experience for them,” he said.
Joelle Casteix, an advocate affiliated with Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said victims can benefit by taking their story public.
“It’s a very, very scary thing to stand up and talk about your abuse and own it under your own name,” she said. “But every victim I have talked to who has been able to stand up and tell their story as an adult has walked out empowered.
“For many victims, it was the time when they became an adult again and they could stand up for that child who was so horribly hurt. Every victim in some way wants that; not everyone has the strength to do it,” Casteix said.
For two decades, Curtis St. John struggled with feelings of low self-worth. He relied on alcohol as an escape. He had a failed marriage. And he refused to acknowledge the root cause. His mantra was: It happened when I was a child and I’m fine.”
I don’t know how many times I have heard this… “What happened to me in the past is over now. I am going to concentrate on the here and now.” This simply does not work for anyone who was raped or otherwise severely traumatized. It is scientifically impossible to ignore the past because an unhealed person will live in the past whether they will it or not.
“But St. John hadn’t been fine since he was 10 years old, when after a math lesson in the home of a trusted teacher he was sexually abused. It occurred again and again.
“I’d play Little League and I could smell him on me cause I’d just been at his house,” St. John said.
His abuser, a man named Albert Fentress, later in that summer of 1979 murdered and then ate a teenage boy in his home, under the same roof he’d abused St. John. Fentress was arrested and pleaded insanity. Still, St. John stayed quiet.
Years later, when Fentress petitioned for release from the psychiatric center where he was being held, St. John came forward. At 33, for the first time, he told his parents what had happened to him on those afternoons they thought he was getting math help. And he offered to tell his story under oath.
“Like many men, I did not tell anyone. In my case, this guy was a pillar of the community, very similar to Mr. Sandusky and I knew no one would believe me,” St. John said. “It’s not that my parents wouldn’t believe me, it’s one of those things that people can’t stand to believe. It’s almost easier to be quiet and take it. And that’s what I did for 20 years.”
After he came forward, others did as well. His childhood best friend had also been abused. St. John’s sworn deposition ensured that Fentress would stay locked up, and he was moved from a less secure hospital to a locked ward.
Fentress wasn’t at the hearing, St. John said the man wouldn’t face him. But St. John, now a spokesman for MaleSurvivor, a group that helps male victims of sex abuse, said he had been mentally prepared to face him.
Still, even without the face-to-face contact, St. John said finally owning the story and having other people accept it was the ultimate healing.
“It was pretty amazing. In the end I have to say for me personally, it was very therapeutic,” St. John said. “We grow up thinking, ‘I’m alone in this, no one is going to listen, no one is going to believe me.’ There was a weight off my chest that I didn’t even know was there.”