Press Release

Speech by Ernie Allen at Penn State University Child Sexual Abuse Conference

What can you and your community do about child sexual abuse?


29 October 2012

Ernie Allen, President & CEO
International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children and
Founding Chairman,National Center for Missing & Exploited Children

President Erickson, Ladies and Gentlemen:

I am honored to be a part of this extraordinary conference, and want to express my sincere thanks and admiration to Dr. Erickson and to the entire Penn State community. I know that the past year and a half have been difficult for this university. However, this is not a problem that only touched Penn State. It is a problem which affects countless institutions, communities and organizations. Penn State was thrust into the national limelight, but you have chosen to lead. You have chosen to make a difference, and to send a loud message across this country that child sexual abuse is a serious problem and that we as a nation must do more about it.

When I joined this battle more than thirty years ago, I remember being moved by a book written by psychologist Dr. Robert Geiser. His premise was that children were being victimized through sexual abuse and exploitation in astounding numbers and that somehow, America had missed it. He called his book, “Hidden Victims.”

Today, I can report to you that we have made incredible progress as a nation.Confirmed cases of child sexual abuse have declined steadily over the past two decades. Reporting has increased. Law enforcement and social services are better trained and responding more swiftly and effectively than ever before. More abusers are being identified and brought to justice. More child victims are getting help.

Yet, children are still being victimized in startling numbers, and this problem remains under-recognized and under-reported. Even today, it is a problem of hidden victims.

We see strong indications that there are many more people who are sexually attracted to children than we ever believed possible. One indication is the explosion of child pornography with the advent of the Internet. Child pornography is misnamed and misunderstood. It has nothing to do with pornography nor with the First Amendment. It is nothing less than images of the sexual abuse of a child: crime scene photos.

In 2005, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children reviewed 1.9 million child pornography images and videos. Last year, they reviewed 17 million. And of the child victims identified, 77% were prepubescent including 10% who were infants and toddlers.

Researchers tell us that the reporting of child sexual abuse has climbed to 1 in 3, the highest level ever. However, when the sexual abuse of the child is memorialized on a child pornography photo or video, reporting drops to virtually zero. These children simply do not tell.

So, while I celebrate the progress we are making, I submit to you that we continue to pay an enormous price as a society as we struggle to come to grips with the child sexual abuse epidemic. I refer to it as an epidemic because it is more than a legal or law enforcement problem, we believe that it is a true public health crisis.

A 2010 Mayo Clinic study found that a history of sexual abuse is associated with suicide attempts, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders, depression, and eating and sleep disorders. A 2011 American Heart Association study found that women who experienced unwanted sexual activity as children had higher risks for heart attacks, heart disease and strokes. A 2011 CDC study found that men and women who experienced sexual violence were prone to headaches, chronic pain, poor physical health and poor mental health.

The prevalence of pedophilia and hebephilia is estimated to be at least 1% of the male population, a prevalence level comparable to schizophrenia. Sex offenders are 4-5 times more likely to have been sexually abused themselves as children than the general population.

Two weeks ago, the International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children announced a Global Health Coalition of some of the world’s most powerful, influential pharmaceutical companies – Roche of Switzerland, GlaxoSmithKline of the United Kingdom, Merck of the United States, and others – joining with major health care institutions like the Mayo Clinic, the CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics, Harvard Medical School and others.

We believe that this effort is historic. Never before have the world’s healthcare leaders come together in a joint effort to end the scourge of child sexual abuse. We will seek to change the way the world responds to this hidden crisis. We will use the public health model and undertake epidemiological research, including new efforts to measure the long-term impact on the health and well-being of the victims of child sexual abuse and exploitation.

We will promote changes in medical education to include more content on child sexual abuse. At a recent conference, a leading child psychiatrist said, “I spent six years in medical school and residency, learned about many maladies affecting children, most of which I have never encountered during my twenty years of practice. But nobody taught me about child sexual abuse.” We are going to change that.

We will also try to reach every healthcare worker worldwide through in-service training to improve their ability to recognize and respond to child sexual abuse. We will identify gaps in treatment, assess mental health services for child victims and for offenders, and survey existing treatment programs for abusers to evaluate ways to prevent child victimization through early identification and intervention with potential sexual abusers. We will focus heavily on prevention.

The recent events at Penn State, the release of the Boy Scout files, and many other examples remind us that child sexual abuse is an all-too-present fact of modern life. It affects countless communities and institutions. Yet, millions of Americans still do not believe that this problem exists at all. Why?

First, most child victims still do not tell. It is progress that today 1 in 3 report, but that still means that 2 out of 3 victims suffer in silence. There are people in this room today who were victimized as children and have never told anybody. You and millions of others are America’s hidden victims.

Another challenge is the offenders do not match society’s stereotype. Most people want to believe that someone who would prey upon a child sexually must be evil-looking, a menacing, frightening stranger.

Yet, most of those who victimize children are not strangers to the child, they are known to the child.They seek legitimate access to the child. We should never be shocked when an abuser is a volunteer or employee of a youth-serving organization, a school, a church, or another setting that provides easy, low-risk access to children. That is why the leading child-serving organizations have taken steps to do background screening of their staff and volunteers, and monitor and supervise the interactions between adults and the children in their care.

It is not a panacea but it is a basic, common sense step that every organization should take. In 2003 Congress asked the National Center to conduct a pilot background screening program for youth-serving organizations. Applicants were fingerprinted and their prints sent to the FBI. Every applicant knew he was being fingerprinted and subject to an FBI national criminal history background check. Despite that knowledge, 2% of the applicants had disqualifying criminal history. We found child molesters, rapists, drug dealers and more, all seeking to become a volunteer with children. They lied on the application forms to try to defeat the background check. They provided the wrong name, address, date of birth or social security number.But their fingerprints told us who they really were.

We must be vigilant. From sex offenders, we often hear a chilling word, “grooming.” Most offenders who prey upon children do not snatch their victims randomly from the streets, they groom their victims, win their confidence and trust through friendship and kindness, establish trust and then violate it. The child is made to feel responsible, like it is his or her fault. And the child is often intimidated or threatened by this person of trust and authority.

Even if they decide to tell, will anyone listen? These children feel that no one will believe them, and too many adults simply do not listen to or stand what children try to tell us.

We have spent many years trying to debunk two myths. The first is the myth of the stranger. The vast majority of perpetrators are known the child, at least casually. For more than a quarter century, we have attempted to eliminate the word “stranger” from the vocabulary. It is difficult for children to understand. And most offenders are not scary, dirty, menacing strangers, they are otherwise respectable citizens – doctors, lawyers, businessmen, religious figures, teachers, police officers, even coaches. Often they are people who outwardly show deep and enduring commitment to helping children in need.

The second is the myth of the dirty old man. Surely, someone who would sexually abuse a child must be impaired or senile? Yet, most of the offenders are young, less than 35 years of age. And they do not have diminished mental capacity. Research shows that 80% of these offenders are of normal intelligence levels or above.

We have much to learn. When I first spoke with Dr. Kate Staley of Penn State about this conference, I asked, “What could I say to this audience that would be helpful? You have the nation’s leading experts. You have American heroes who will tell their stories of courage and perseverance.” Dr. Staley and I agreed I should focus on what you can do, as an individual and in your community. So, let me make several suggestions:

First, empower your children. They must always feel that they can talk to someone they trust, that they are not isolated and alone. In our society we send a subconscious message to our children. They are just kids, they don’t have the answers, but when they become adults like us, they will know all the answers. To many children, that translates to “do what the man says.”

All parents want their children to be polite and respectful to adults. Yet, many victim parents have told me, “If we made a mistake, it is that we made our child too much a little lady or gentleman.”

Our message is not that we want children to be disrespectful or impolite, but rather that we teach them that they have power. They have the right to say “no.” As parents we must give them the skills, the self-confidence and self-esteem to prevent their abuse and victimization.

Second, teach your children to communicate. Remember the old maxim, “Children should be seen and not heard.” It is time to change that. Children should be seen and heard.

One of the most stigmatizing accusations that can be made against a child is that he or she is a “tattletale.” Unwittingly, we discourage children from communicating. The key to prevention and detection of child sexual abuse is communication. Children must be taught that if something is happening in their lives that they do not feel right about, or makes them uncomfortable, they must tell an adult they trust.

Third, the first line of defense is a vigilant public. All fifty states require child-serving professionals to report reasonable suspicions of child abuse. Some states require that anyone with suspicions report it. In Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Task Force on Child Protection is carefully examining existing law and considering ways to improve it.

I believe that state reporting laws should make it clear that any person who knows or has reasonable cause to suspect child abuse shall report such knowledge or suspicions. These statutes typically delineate categories of mandatory reporters, including but not limited to physicians, nurses, and other healthcare workers; mental health professionals; teachers and other school personnel; social workers and other child care workers; and law enforcement officers. However, all of us have an obligation to report.

Some express concern about the ability of public agencies to handle the volume. Typically, reports are processed by a central hotline, and then referred to the appropriate agency for investigation. For caretaker abuse, the reports are sent to the appropriate child protective services agency. For non-caretaker abuse, the reports are sent to law enforcement.

Some people ask, “What if I am wrong?” Human nature wants to assume that there is an innocent explanation for what they have seen. People don’t want to get involved and are concerned about possible liability if they are wrong. That is why the leading laws provide “good-faith immunity” from civil liability. The requirement is simply that these reports are reasonable and are made in good faith.

Thus, our message to the people of Pennsylvania and America is very basic. The lives of our children depend on us. If you see it, suspect it, or know about it, report it. In Pennsylvania, call the Child Line and Abuse Registry. And there are national resources like the ChildHelp USA National Child Abuse Hotline, 1-800-4A CHILD, or to report suspected child sexual exploitation, report it online to the National Center’s CyberTipline,

There are also some terrific resources which you and your community should know about and utilize. Stop It Now, Darkness to Light, RAINN, the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape to mention just a few. Contact them, engage them, support them.

Another great resource is the US Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). At the request of juvenile justice officials, OJJDP will provide top national experts and researchers at no cost and provide training and technical assistance for educators, parents, youth, attorneys, law enforcement and judges.

Fourth, make sure that your community has the kinds of resources in place that are needed to protect our children. Does your community have a Child Advocacy Center, bringing together key services and professionals? Pennsylvania has 13 CACs with eight more under development. And I have learned that there is an effort underway to create a CAC in Centre County. If you don’t have one in your community, learn more and contact your public officials about it.

Finally, each one of you has power and influence. I have always believed the old Robert Kennedy line: “One person can make a difference, and everyone should try.” I urge you to make a difference in your community – inform, educate, motivate and mobilize.

It is difficult, so do not be discouraged. In much of America there is still a sense of denial. “What happened at Penn State, or the Boy Scouts, or the Church, or countless other examples are aberrations. This can’t happen in my neighborhood or my community.”

I still quote what a police commanding officer said to me thirty years ago, “The only way not to find this problem in any community is simply not to look for it.” The good news is that America has begun to look. The bad news is that we have only just begun.

When the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children opened its doors 28 years ago, the announcement was made by the President of the United States in a ceremony at the White House. President Ronald Reagan used an old, corny poem by Helen Kromer as a challenge to all of us. It goes like this:

One man awake can awaken another.
The second can awaken his next door brother.
The three awake can rouse the town,
Turning the whole place upside down.
And the many awake make such a fuss,
They finally awaken the rest of us.

Thank you for being here and for your commitment to Pennsylvania’s children. My challenge to you today is very simple: Help us wake up Pennsylvania and wake up America.