Child Abuse: Why People So Often Look the Other Way

lonely boy with head on knees
Most people think they would step in to protect a child being abused, but psychologists say even well-meaning eyewitnesses can freeze up in these crisis situations. (Image credit: Suzanne Tucker | Shutterstock)

Of all the missed chances outlined in the grand jury report regarding the allegations of child sexual abuse by former Pennsylvania State University assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, two moments stand out: One, a 2000 incident when a janitor allegedly witnessed Sandusky performing oral sex on a middle school-age boy, and the other, a 2002 incident in which a graduate assistant, now a coach at the school, allegedly saw Sandusky anally raping a boy of about age 10 in the university locker room.

Both men reported what they'd seen to their supervisors, and according to grand jury testimony, both were distraught — the janitor so much so that his co-workers thought he might have a heart attack. But neither man stepped in to stop the abuse in the moment, decisions that have raised criticism in the wake of the scandal.

"I think everyone believes that they would go in and break that up," Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett (R) told NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday (Nov. 13).

But while child abuse experts say that catching perpetrators in the act is rare, child abuse goes unreported and uninterrupted more often than not. And given the unexpected nature of seeing a man sexually abusing a child, even well-meaning eyewitnesses might freeze up.

Swept under the rug

According to the child sexual abuse prevention organization Stop It Now!, as many as one in three girls and one in seven boys experience sexual abuse. By far, most of those cases go unreported. Statistics vary, but studies suggest that only about 12 percent to 30 percent of child sexual abuse cases are reported to the authorities.

Hierarchical organizations such as the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts have come under fire for covering up or failing to appropriately deal with the sexual abuse of children. But it's not just organizations that turn a blind eye, said Jeanetta Issa, the president and chief executive officer of the Child Abuse Prevention Association (CAPA). Families frequently deny child abuse in their midst too, Issa told LiveScience. In one case Issa was familiar with, an adult woman who had been sexually abused by her brother throughout her youth began to see signs that her niece might have become his next victim. The woman finally spoke out.

"In her whole family, nobody believed her," Issa said. "They tried to have her committed to a mental hospital."

Despite stereotypes of creepy-looking men in white vans, child abusers are actually usually the most likeable, gregarious people around, Issa said. They get close to kids not only by charming them, but by charming the people protecting them.

"They don't only groom the kid, they groom the parents," Issa said.

In the case of a powerful, famous man like Sandusky, it can be even harder to speak up, said Elizabeth Saewyc, a nursing professor at the University of British Columbia who specializes in treatment of abused children.

"When someone is a very prominent and powerful figure, it is very difficult for people to feel like they should say bad things about them," Saewyc told LiveScience. People may also start to doubt themselves, she said, worrying that they'll ruin the suspected abuser's life if they're wrong.

And in the case of Penn State, Saewyc said, people who heard about the alleged abuse may have been blinded by their loyalty to their organization.

"When it's a prominent person in a respected institution, there is going to be damage, not just to that person but to the institution," Saewyc said. "People may pay attention to those consequences."

Eyewitness inaction

All of these psychological barriers keep people from speaking out, but what's unusual about the Penn State case is that in two separate occasions, witnesses said they saw obvious abuse occurring. In 2000, the janitor cleaning the locker room who saw Sandusky performing oral sex on a young boy, according to grand jury testimony, told his co-worker that he had "fought in the [Korean] war … seen people with their guts blowed out, arms dismembered. … I just witnessed something in there I'll never forget." The janitor, who now has dementia and resides in an assisted living facility, told his supervisor what he saw, but no report was ever filed. Co-workers said they feared losing their jobs if they made accusations.

In 2002, now-assistant coach Mike McQueary, then a graduate student, saw Sandusky assaulting a boy in the showers, according to the grand jury report, which also stated that McQueary saw that both Sandusky and the boy had seen him and immediately left the room. McQueary called his father and reported what he'd seen to head coach Joe Paterno the next day, the testimony stated.

That Sandusky allegedly got caught in the act even once is rare, Issa said.

"We see 12,000 clients a year," she said. "In all of that, very seldom does anybody actually walk in and actually witness the abuse." [Challenges for Male Victims of Sexual Abuse]

The very rarity of the situation may have made it difficult to react, said Peter Ditto, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Irvine, who studies moral decision-making. People often have very strong ideas about what they'd do in a situation — stop the rape, save the child — but crises can cause the mind to freeze, Ditto told LiveScience.

Research on the "bystander effect," the surprising fact that many people will stand by while terrible things happen, suggests that when something horrible occurs, people often go into a kind of denial, thinking that if it were really this bad, somebody else would be stopping it, Ditto said. (Involving other people makes the bystander effect worse, in fact, by diffusing the sense of responsibility to do something.)

"It's that crisis, split-second sort of quality," Ditto said. "Here this thing happens that's almost impossible to believe, and you're paralyzed for a while as to what to do. … In these kinds of crisis situations, delay is tantamount to not helping. Your opportunity is right there, to help, to stop it, and then you delay, you walk out and it's all kind of over."

A 1985 study found that the bystander effect influences people with more masculine personalities the most. In the research, 20 students took part in a group discussion via headphones in which one participant pretended to start choking. Actual gender didn't influence which people called for help, but those whose personalities were higher in stereotypically masculine traits such as "athleticism" and "aggressiveness" were more likely to sit idly by. Reporting in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the researchers speculated that perhaps highly masculine people feared potential embarrassment and "loss of poise" and thus hesitated longer before reacting. 

While fire drills and emergency simulations can prepare people for disasters and prevent the "freeze" response to a crisis, it's tougher to run through potential scenarios in which you walk in on a respected figure abusing a child, Ditto said.

"People misunderstand how ambiguous situations are, just the uncertainty, you don't know quite what's happening," he said. "It's hard to know how to get out of that delay."

Sandusky's reputation probably contributed to the continued silence, Saewyc said.

"It would take a remarkably self-confident person to say something, step in and do something, in the face of one of the most powerful people on campus and someone who is famous," she said.

Stepping in

But both Saewyc and Issa said that no matter the hurdles to reporting, doing so is crucial. What should have happened in the alleged child-sexual-abuse cases, Issa said, is that the eyewitnesses or their superiors should have immediately contacted the state child abuse hotline.

"If they can't get their hands on that number, by golly, law enforcement would be fine," Issa said. And that goes for janitors and passersby, not just educators and other legally mandated reporters.

"Just because you're not required by law to report does not mean that you're not morally and ethically bound to do something to save a child," Issa said.

Nor should people hesitate to report if they haven't witnessed the abuse personally, Issa said. It's not the job of the person reporting the abuse to authorities to have an airtight case; the investigation is up to child welfare and law enforcement.

"It's literally if you suspect abuse. It's not that you have to personally witness it," Saewyc said. "It is better to err on the side of protecting the young person than it is to walk away from it."

You can follow LiveScience senior writer Stephanie Pappas on Twitter @sipappas. Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter @livescience and on Facebook.

Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.