A child — perhaps your own — has come to you with disturbing news: So-and-so was doing something that maybe wasn’t right. His hands were in a private place, or somewhere close by. She was taking weird pictures. There was something on his computer screen that he said was okay and I shouldn’t tell anybody about it. . . . What should you, the adult, do with this news? The answer is simple: Tell the police.
It is not your job to be investigator, judge, and jury. If someone’s in immediate danger, of course you’ll dial 911. When that’s not the case? Pick up the phone, call the city or county police office during business hours, and make arrangements to file the appropriate report. It’s okay to call and say, “I’m not even sure a crime took place, but –.” The police are used to getting these calls. It is their job to sort through the information and figure out how to proceed.
If it makes you more comfortable, first describe what you know about the possible crime, and wait to name the perpetrator until you’ve determined the action was in fact criminal. But call the police. Not your friend who’s a cop, not your neighbor, not the lady at church whose kid is going to the police academy. Call your police station, and make an official report. Even if the particular incident is not one that will result in a conviction, it can become part of a collection of evidence that paints the complete picture.
Do you need to worry about traumatizing the young person? No. Not if you handle the situation in a discreet and sensitive manner. There are steps you can take to ensure the youth is not scarred by the reporting process. I can say this from personal experience. I’ve been involved in two sexual abuse investigations.
In the first, as a child, my testimony was one of several that eventually helped convict a serial rapist. (Unfortunately, not before he’d committed some very serious crimes.) My part: To go down to the station with my mom, she had told the officer what I’d told her, I looked through a stack of photo albums to try to identify the guy, and that was it. No drama. Nothing scary. Not even the need to answer 10,000 questions — it sufficed for me to tell the adult I trusted, and let the adult do the difficult talking.
In the second case, I was 18, and called in to give my opinion on what turned out to be false allegations. I read the written statement given by another teen, gave the police my opinion of the facts in that statement, and answered some questions about what I knew about the alleged perpetrator. And that was it. Again, no drama, no pressure. Share what you know, say, “I don’t know,” to what you don’t know, the police take it from there. It’s their job. Eventually the innocent man was exonerated, and the false accuser was given help and support to deal with her personal problems.
Reporting can be part of the healing process. One of the traits of evil is the effort to make what is bad seem like what is good. A sexual offender will tend to pass off the abusive behavior as “normal” or “no big deal”. There’s in particular a tendency to minimize molestation that falls short of full-on rape or sodomy. To have an adult confirm that what happened is not normal, is not the victim’s fault, and does constitute a crime? It makes all the difference in helping the victim come to terms with the crime.
In the case of a false accusation, it is true that the process of being investigated is absolutely horrific for the victim. But failure to report doesn’t undo the accusation, it just leaves the question hanging in the air indefinitely. The seriousness of a police and social services investigation brings home to the accuser that this is not some game of cliquish politics, and gives the accused the chance to be proven innocent. False accusations are a serious offense in themselves, and deserve to be documented, to prevent the false-accuser from harming others.
Can a cautious call go wrong? Sure it can. Working in law enforcement is not a guaranteed path to canonization. I imagine that writing this post is going to bring out of the woodwork countless stories of lousy police and social work, the same way saying, “I love my priest!” seems to elicit 10,000 stories of not-so-wonderful priestly behavior. But the price of not calling is way too high. Call. Let the police know what you know. Let them take it from there.