But for adults with sinister intentions, these actions can be the springboards into “grooming” the children under their supervision into sexual relationships.
“It’s called ‘blurring the boundaries,’” says Lisa Dever, who heads the Baltimore County State’s Attorney’s sex offense and child abuse division. “You’re taking normal situations and seeing exactly how far you can get, … to see how that kid can react.” One in four girls and one in six boys will be victims of sexual abuse by the age of 18, according to Adam Rosenberg, executive director of the Baltimore Child Abuse Center; 90 percent of those abuses are committed by someone the child knows and trusts.
While the coach-athlete relationship is only one of many that can lead to these unfortunate situations, there are unique aspects to these relationships that give predators opportunities to find their prey.
While there are dimensions such as changing clothes in the locker room, traveling and staying in hotel rooms and teachable moments, where physical contact is essential, coaches also carry the respect and admiration that comes with being experts in their sport.
“That can set the table for abuse to occur, and there are times in this culture that we tend to idolize those who are good at sports,” says Nancy Aiken, executive director at CHANA (Counseling, Helpline & Aid Network for Abused Women). “Assuming that a coach is someone who possesses strength and knowledge in a sport, a young person will idolize them and want to be liked by them … it’s seductive to have an adult paying attention to you.”
Perpetrators will often test the water with multiple potential victims and see which ones will allow them to gradually push the boundaries.
“A charismatic adult can make a young person feel important and can utilize an intimate nonsexual relationship to gain trust and set up a dependency that precedes sexual contact,” Aiken says. “All teenagers want to do something behind their parents’ back. They’re curious about sex.”
Predators will make it into almost a game, where it’s a secret between the adult and the victim, Dever says. The adult also coaxes the victim into sympathy by saying things like they could get fired or in trouble if the victim speaks out. Combine that with alibis the adult created, and it can be hard for a victim to come forward and get somewhere.
“The perpetrator spends a lot of time setting the stage so that when questions are raised, he has already choreographed the answers,” Aiken says.
Rosenberg says there are also opportunistic pedophiles who can fall into the situation when an attraction goes too far, and they cross lines without even considering the inappropriateness of the situation.
Sexual abuse knows no geographical or cultural boundaries. And yes, it even affects the Jewish community.
The topic sent a wave of alarm through Brooklyn’s Orthodox community in December 2011 when the Forward requested the names of 85 Orthodox Jews arrested on sex charges in the previous three years. A large number of Orthodox Jews had previously been arrested for sex crimes under a new initiative.
Baltimore’s Jewish community was shocked earlier this year when a physical education teacher at the Day School at Baltimore Hebrew and former dean of students and director of athletics at the Shoshana S. Cardin School was charged with child abuse for an alleged sexual relationship that started when the victim was a minor at the Cardin School and lasted about four years. Foye Minton, 34, was arrested on Jan. 10 at the day school.
Experts say the Jewish community needs to accept that these incidents do go on in our families and synagogues in order to open up a dialogue.
“Within the Jewish community … there’s a concept of ‘you don’t go outside the community, we take care of it ourselves,’” says Joyanna Silberg, executive vice president of the Leadership Council on Child Abuse & Interpersonal Violence. “The other thing about the Jewish community is that … we have a sense of our own privilege and think things [like sexual abuse] don’t happen in our community.”
Silberg recalls a study that surveyed women going to a mikvah in Israel and found that roughly 25 percent of them had been sexually abused, a figure that matches up with the percentage of women in the U.S. who have been sexually abused.
But it’s not just the Jewish population that has some difficulty discussing this topic. The victims go through unknowable struggles coming to terms with what happened and reporting it, if they even do report it.
Victims face all kinds of obstacles and even resistance. Teammates, other adults and sometimes even parents might not believe that their beloved coach is a sex offender. The victims fear betraying someone they admire and sometimes blame themselves for the situation. Sometimes they simply don’t have the words to explain what happened.
“Most children don’t know what to do when confronted with their first sexual experience, especially when approached by a person in a power situation. It’s extremely confusing and they don’t know what do to do,” Silberg says, adding that the victims rationalize and justify the situation as it escalates. “… When it gets to the point that it truly has invaded boundaries, the children feel it is their fault because they never said no.”
Even if a case goes to court — less than 10 percent of reported cases are successfully prosecuted, Silberg says — the victim has to testify and relive the entire situation.
“You might lose, and for the kid who suffered through this — and came forward and said they were abused, got somebody arrested and turned their school upside down — the kid feels terrible,” Rosenberg says. The results are all over the map because there is often not a lot of evidence in sexual abuse cases, he says.
Those who work with victims of sexual abuse say education is the key to stopping these situations before they start.
“The problem gets solved when you walk people through situations, and you tell people what’s appropriate and what’s inappropriate,” Rosenberg says.
This method should be applied to all adults with authority over kids, from teachers to coaches, he says.
Parents should look for unusual behavior in their children and not be afraid to talk to them about sexual abuse, Silberg says. Parents should also hold athletic programs to a high standard and make sure environments are created that are hostile to pedophiles and safe for children, Rosenberg says.
Aiken said it’s important to do deep background checks on coaches and as much “legal stalking” as possible. Children should also be taught to be comfortable speaking to a non-involved adult and not feel like they are betraying a friend by reporting abuse.
At Baltimore’s Talmudical Academy, a policy and a new position were put in place several years ago to ensure that students, faculty and teachers could report any suspicion of abuse or neglect comfortably. The school created an ombudsman position to serve as a liaison between the students, teachers, faculty and administration.
“The policy is one that makes it clear, if somebody has a reason to believe that there has been an occurrence of abuse and neglect, [they] will have the obligation to make a report with the school,” said Neal Strum, an attorney who is on the school’s executive board and served as its first ombudsman. The school reports incidents to the authorities, even if there is doubt cast on the allegations, and does its own investigation, if necessary, as well. Strum said several other schools have adopted similar policies modeled after TA’s.
While most point to a multidimensional education as the best way to stop sexual abuse, Rosenberg believes it needs to begin with those who have the power to start and stop these situations from occurring.
“The adults are where [we’ve] got to start,” he says.
Marc Shapiro is a JT staff reporter firstname.lastname@example.org