Pastoral Response Assistance Team, Inc.
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 Why Boys Don't Tell About Sexual Abuse 



Thomas F. Carr, M.A. LMFT, LMHC, LCSW

Thomas F. Carr a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, and Co-Director of the Pastoral Response Assistance Team Inc.  In 1993, the Team worked with St. Paul's Parish in Hingham, Massachusetts, where the Pastor was accused of sexually abusing an altar boy years earlier from a prior parish.  In the midst of the first of two trials, other alleged victims of Father John Hanlon started to come forward, and were met with distain and disbelief.  In an effort to answer some of the questions about why the victims had not come forward, Carr wrote this article, which was later adapted for other parishes, published in whole or part in various local newspapers, sent to individuals in the United States and elsewhere in the world, and translated into Spanish.

Why Boys Don't Tell About Sexual Abuse

The recent trial of Father John Hanlon of St. Paul's in Hingham, brought with it many questions about his teenaged victims.  Originally, when the case came to the attention of the Court, there were one or two victims, from one family, from "a long time ago".  Then there was the announcement that Hanlon had taken a number of boys to a "nude beach", and that there might be "two or three" other victims.  After the hung jury and finally, with the second trial, a total of five victims of Hanlon's abuse came forward to testify, and with his sentencing to life imprisonment, we are beginning to hear and believe that there are more victims.  Why only now do we hear about more victims?  Why didn't they come forward before now?  Why don't boys tell?

The answer to the questions about why boys don't tell is not unique to the Hanlon case.  It has been long thought that boys are sexually abused at a rate far less than that of girls.  However, more recent experience in the prosecution of these cases reveals that the number of male victims is perhaps equal to that of female victims.

A primary reason both boys and girls don't tell is because they do not know whether they will be believed.  In these kinds of cases (including the Hanlon case), there is often a large group of supporters that the alleged perpetrator could not possibly have committed the crime.  This reinforces the victim's perception that they are powerless to come forward.  Sometimes the victim believes that it is they who will be in trouble for somehow causing their own abuse, and with all of these people supporting the perpetrator, who will believe them.

For boys, there are two factors within our society that play a large part as to why they don't tell.  The first is that boys should not be victims. Somehow they should have had the power to keep the abuse from happening.  You often hear little boys say; "If somebody did that to me, I'd punch them".  Society's expectation is that boys somehow will protect themselves, even when they are being manipulated or tricked.  Second is the idea that if a boy is sexually abused by an adult male, that the boy is a homosexual.  Although this is not true it often results in the male victim becoming further stigmatized.

Society has a long way to go in understanding and educating itself to the fact that male victims of sexual abuse are not gay and that pedophiles, those who sexually abuse children, are not normally gay men, but predominantly heterosexual males or those exclusively interested in children.

Boys (and girls for that matter) also don't tell because if they do, they often have to trust in a system that may initially, at least (as in the Hanlon case) portray them in a very negative way, initially as a "liar", then perhaps as somebody who is "out for money".

There also is the problem of who a child can tell.  Children rarely initially tell a parent they have been abused.  This is often because they know that no matter what, they are always going to have to live with their parent, and they are concerned with how, or even if, the parent will react.  They as victims may also be concerned with the damage that will be done to their parent as a result; "I can take care of myself, but who will take care of Mom and Dad?", when they learn about what happened.

There is a lot in the popular press about repressed memory and "false memory" syndrome.  There is also a great deal of speculation that the reason people come forward in these sexual abuse cases centers around the hope for "quick money", however, it is ludicrous to think that male victims of sexual abuse are going to come forward because of the money.  As a boy, I can recall frequently being questioned by the other boys on how much somebody would have to pay you to do certain things.  For example, tell the girl in the next row that you like her, smoke a cigarette, and then to more theoretical things, like telling off a teacher, or be willing to stand in your underwear in the class.  We all remember that there was no amount of money that would have us do certain things.

The real reason for people coming forward is now only recently being understood.  Primarily, the reason people come forward is to put an end to their silent suffering, or to protect others from the possibility of the same thing happening to them, as we learn that perpetrators of sexual abuse continue until they are stopped.

The general public, and professionals for that matter, are not educated to how it is that a child, even a bright, well adjusted child as most of the Father James Porter victims and the victims of Father Hanlon were, could get trapped into being abused.  It does happen, and it is important that we learn about how these pedophiles operate, and manipulate boys and young men into crossing a line of acceptable behavior and become entrapped into an ever increasing abusive situation.

Take the case of 46 year old Mario, who lived in a small suburb of Boston with a large Portuguese community.  Mario was well known and well liked by the Portuguese community.  Although he had no children of his own, he was involved with many of them in the community.  He was described as an "affable bachelor", who was "deeply into music, camping, and swimming", most of these activities shared with his "little brothers".  Mario reported "particular pride in his long-time association with the Big Brother organization, which as it turned out, he had nothing to do with.  As many of the children's parents did not speak English, Mario often acted as an interpreter and some times would take over certain responsibilities, for example interaction with school personnel because of the language problems.

When I became involved with the case, Mario had already been arraigned in the district court the previous Fall for the sexual abuse of two boys, both Catholic, Portuguese, and age eleven.  Mario was out on bail.  The parents of the both victims actually got together and bailed him out of jail.  They did not believe that their children had been molested, and more significantly believing that this man was not capable of such a crime.  The local police, the District Attorney's office, and (because of several reports alleging the sexual abuse by this man and a lack of parental intervention) the Department of Social Services also became involved in investigating.

I had the opportunity to interview another possible victim, twelve year old John.  John had not become as involved with Mario at the exact same time as the original two victims, but was in fact sexually abused along with them.  Through discussions with John, the original two victims, and several other victims, I was able to piece together the following account.

Mario, used "pressuring" on the children, capitalizing on a child's normal need for attention, approval, and human contact, and using enticement, encouragement, or instruction.  When Mario would meet one of these young boys, either through direct contact or through a previous or current victim, Mario would make it a point to get to know the boy's family.  He would go to dinner, offer help with translation, or provide rides for parents or children.  Mario became a trusted friend of the entire family.  He would sometimes bring (needed) food to the home.  It would then not be unusual for Mario to take the boys to school, on outings, sometimes individually and sometimes as groups.  He would take them to the arcade, to the park, to a baseball game, or "just for a ride".

Over one summer, Mario began taking a group of about six of these boys on short trips.  The group had grown from the original two victims to approximately six.  The other four boys, including John, were included and excluded from time to time.  Mario would take the boys swimming to a local lake.  After swimming, they would return to Mario's apartment, have some pizza and the boys would eventually all go home.

The next few weeks when Mario would take the boys, he would point out that the water that they swam in was "dirty", "polluted", and "full of germs", so that it would probably be a good idea for each of the boys to take a shower as soon as possible.  The boys would then go in individually, take their shower, return, have their pizza, play some video games, and then go home.

In the next few weeks, Mario would point out that the showering process was taking a long time, time better spent on video games or eating pizza, and it would be faster if the boys would just leave the door open and take their shower.  By this time too, Mario's behavior was becoming more provocative.  He would also shower and change his clothes, taking his time in between being in a state of undress and getting dressed again.  Some of the boys had noticed that the shower curtain had changed from a flowered shower curtain to a clear plastic shower curtain.  The boys were then told to all take off their clothes, "line up", and quickly shower, since it would give them more time to eat pizza and play video games before they had to go home.  Mario began to point out to the boys that they would all be in high school soon, and since they were "all guys" there was nothing wrong with seeing each other in the nude.  They would flip coins to see who would shower first.  Mario eventually would himself be in the bathroom, first just to hand out towels and then to adjust the water, then helping to dry off the boys, individually.  He would point out to the boys that he saw no reason why they needed to get dressed quickly after these showers, and that they should eat without clothes on.  He told them they would dry off naturally and it would save him from having to go to the laundromat to do towels.  Another boy, Danny, who was a year younger, would later report; "he just took the clothes away.  He wouldn't even give me a towel".

In the following weeks, Mario was starting to "explain about girls", telling them "what would happen" when they "turned fourteen".  He was beginning to show them magazines of naked adult women and men, engaged in sexual activities.  Mario then began touching the boys', ostensibly to show them the differences as some boys were circumcised, while others were not.

By now, their contacts being more frequent, and Mario, trusted by the family, was allowed to have overnight visits with one or more of the boys.  Sometimes too, Mario would be allowed to take one or more of the children on trips with him, camping, even to Florida.

John explained that on some of these overnight visits that Mario would set out the sleeping arrangements and that two of the boys, the original two victims in this case, would sleep with Mario, while the other boys were encouraged to sleep in the nude in sleeping bags in an outer room.  John would report that he "heard noises" coming from Mario's room.

Mario was indicted on numerous counts of rape and indecent assault.  Just prior to the trial commencing, and the boys waiting to testify just outside the Courtroom, Mario pleaded guilty to several counts of indecent assault and was placed on probation.  Prior to sentencing, I, along with the two original victims and John, met with the Assistant District Attorney to write a "victim statement" that would be read to the Judge prior to sentencing.  All the boys discussed their feelings about Mario.  They recalled some of the good things they did with Mario, and the fact that he was nice to them and seemed to care about them.  However, all the boys were able to express a real sense of being betrayed and of "being used".  They also again uniformly expressed ambivalence about their sexual identity, feeling to some degree that the events and their involvement had resulted in them now being homosexual.

About a year after the trial, I saw John out on the sidewalk.  He rode his bicycle up to me and was very friendly, saying "I still know what that word means!"  I asked "what word?", to which he responded; "pedophile".  I said "what does it mean?".  John, with a huge smile said; "I'm not gay".

Mario fit the classic profile of what is termed the "fixated pedophile" in that he remained consistent with an age group, generally eleven to thirteen, boys in the their early pubescence, although there is some indication that he fondled a girl of about the same age.  Once the boys reached approximately age fourteen or fifteen, he severed his relationship with them.

As noted, three of the main factors on why children do not tell parents about sexual molestation is:


•    Their inability to determine how their parent is going to react to the disclosure.


•    A fear that they will not be believed.


•    A concern that the information may somehow hurt their parents, that they will be disappointed, or that the relationship that they or their parents may have with the perpetrator will be different.

In the case of Mario, those fears were well founded.  The initial two victims of Mario were subjected to the fact that their parents not only did not believe that it occurred, but took the added step of bailing Mario out of jail.  In John's case, his parents did not believe him, and it was only with strong support and advocacy that they adopted a neutral and non-involved stance.

In cases like Mario, the boys are placed in the untenable position of having "crossed a line", putting themselves in a position of being further and further abused.  However, when did they cross that line?  Was it when they accepted the first invitation to Mario's house for pizza and video games, without any hints of sexual activity?  When they went in and took the unchaperoned shower behind closed doors?  When they were actually seen by Mario or others in the nude?  When Mario dried them off?  Or was it when he actually physically touched them?  Some of the boys were able to express, following the investigation, that they were afraid that their parents were going to yell at them, because they shouldn't have "gone there in the first place".  In fact, this was many of their parents' reactions, so that they were already in trouble for crossing a line, for doing something that instinctually or is natural for a boy in early adolescence.  In our society boys are encouraged much more than girls to go out and explore their world, go to the ball field camping with the scouts, away overnight games with the team, and to go further away from home.  This lowered supervision of boys, coupled with the fact that sexual perpetrator is usually well known by someone in the family, makes it fairly easy to gain easy access to the male victim.

It remains crucial that anyone working with sexually abused children underline for the child the fact that "no matter what, sexual activity between an adult and a child is the responsibility of the adult".  It may seem rather simplistic to say that there are those who would make a strong case for certain circumstances in which a child may even, because of age or circumstances, share at least partially some responsibility.  However, it is these "shades of gray" that pedophiles like Mario, consistently use to their advantage.