What Should I Do If A Child Tells Me They Have Been Sexually Assaulted?

A child comes to you and tells you that a father, adult, coach, teacher, pastor, priest, or other family member has touched them inappropriately. Your choices are:

  • Freeze. You’ve never been in this situation and you have no idea what to do.
  • Downplay the incident. Surely the child is mistaken?
  • Ignore the complaint. It’s not your problem, and you don’t have time to deal with this situation.
  • Call the accused and begin to investigate on your own.
These are all examples of inappropriate, and sometimes illegal, responses. What is the appropriate response?

The proper response when one is presented with facts suggesting that a child has been, or may have been, the victim of sexual abuse is profoundly simple: report the allegation to a local law enforcement or child protective services (“CPS”) agency. At that point, the duty to investigate the allegations and determine guilt or innocence belongs to law enforcement and, ultimately perhaps, the criminal courts. The reporter, if he has disclosed the facts known to him in an honest and complete manner, is absolved of further duties, both legal and moral.

When people instead decide to investigate these matters themselves, before or instead of reporting the allegations to authorities, trouble occurs. We all know about the decades of abuse of hundreds of children by Catholic priests that could have been avoided had the church not taken it upon itself to handle the matter internally and attempt to “cure” wayward priests of their pedophilia.

If the Penn State, Catholic Church, and Boy Scouts of America scandals have taught us anything, it’s that this type of abuse is more common than any of us have thought. If a child reports abuse to you, it is not your job to judge the validity of the claim. Report it immediately. You may prevent further abuse and more victims.

Read the rest of “Lessons from Happy Valley” from the Booth & Koskoff December Newsletter.