The courtroom testimony last month in the sex abuse case of former Penn State football defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was all too familiar to Milwaukeean Karl Larson.
From the ages of 10 to 16, Larson was abused by a similar kind of man – a popular, charismatic, respected local church and Boy Scout leader, he said. The stories told by Sandusky’s victims mirrored Larson’s shattering experience.
Like Sandusky, Larson’s abuser “groomed” him, he said, courting him with flattery and attention and providing him with things that his father couldn’t. The sexual abuse started slowly, with exposure, then escalated. Experts say this pattern is typical among abusers of boys, who manipulate their victims to win their friendship and then pressure them into sexual acts.
Sexual abuse thrives in silence, and Larson’s abuser was menacing in his demands for secrecy. When Larson questioned what was happening, his abuser tried to console him by saying, “Don’t worry, it happened to me, too,’” Larson remembered.
Sandusky, 68, was convicted this summer on 45 charges of sexually abusing 10 boys over the course of 15 years. He faces more than 400 years in prison.
Larson said he discovered that his abuser “had a farm of young men.” His perpetrator has never been apprehended, and he’s continually worked in positions affording him access to boys and male teens, Larson said.
Larson’s focus these days is not on perpetrators but rather on healing the psyches of their victims. He and James Kaminski recently founded the Spiritual Health Network, an educational nonprofit organization at 2923A S. Delaware that focuses on male issues.
Kaminski, who does custom artwork and interior finishing, is transforming the unassuming storefront space in Milwaukee’s Bay View neighborhood into an ethereal haven of safety. The entrance area, with white paint layered like clouds on white walls, is reminiscent of a high-end Third Ward gallery. The space, scheduled to open at the end of August, will become the home base for Larson’s Claiming Sanctuary ministries for men.
Kaminski and Larson have created a comfortable room in the rear of the building – complete with a fireplace – where they hope male abuse survivors will establish support groups and sessions. In essence, they’re creating a space that they believe will facilitate healing, and they hope male abuse victims will use it to support each other.
“There is no place for men to go to heal – it’s either bars or bars,” Larson said. “Either you go to a bar or you’re locked up behind bars.”
“There are so few therapists who really know about this topic,” Larson added. “It’s hard to know how to heal someone from this unless you’ve been through it yourself.”
When Larson, 65, decided to devote his life to working with male sexual abuse victims, he obtained a master’s degree in spiritual psychology and became an ordained non-denominational Christian minister. He decided against the conventional path of obtaining a master’s degree in social work, because licensed clinicians are required to keep clinical records. Men are reluctant to talk about their sexual abuse “if they know it’s going to wind up as part of a file,” Larson explained.
As a non-denominational Christian minister, Larson can provide counseling without even recording his client’s names – which he doesn’t.
Larson counsels men both one on one and in groups. He also does workshops, such as “The Men’s Series,” which he conducted in Janesville. In 2002, he founded the Ministries for Men Foundation in that city.
Larson has long been active in men’s personal growth programs, including the Wisconsin-based Mankind Project. It was the project’s New Warrior Training Adventure weekend where he had his first emotional breakthrough surrounding his abuse. That’s when he began to overcome the guilt and shame it produced in his life.
And also the anger. “He took something away from me,” Larson said of his abuser, including his innocence, his virginity and his childhood. His perpetrator, he continued, robbed him of the ability to discover his body and develop sexually at his own pace and in his own way.
Since his initial emotional breakthrough, “I’ve helped other groups and organizations where they have men’s weekends,” Larson said. He’s developed a reputation for his ability to help men access their repressed feelings and memories of abuse.
“If (facilitators) have a problem where a man is stuck, they call me over,” he said. “I get them to the point of what’s really going on. And that’s when the tears roll.”
While there’s a large body of knowledge and established support networks surrounding female victims, the sexual abuse of boys remains a relative mystery that comes to light only occasionally, in high-profile cases such as Sandusky’s. “It’s a quiet epidemic,” Larson said. “People don’t realize how extensive its tentacles are.”
By tentacles, he means the exponentially damaging effects that abuse has on the abuser’s partners, families, friends and society.
Unlike young female victims, who tend to internalize their reaction to abuse, male victims tend to externalize the trauma, research shows. As adolescents, they’re more likely to engage in extreme use of alcohol and drugs, aggressive/criminal behavior – including bullying, Larson said – poor school performance and sexual risk taking.
Among all children who suffer some form of child abuse, 59 percent are more likely to be arrested as a juvenile, 28 percent are more likely to be arrested as an adult, and 30 percent are more likely to commit violent crime, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Even when abuse does not produce such drastic behaviors, it often results in sexual shame, based on feelings of responsibility for the abuse that occurred. This frequently leads to such adult sexual problems as excessive promiscuity and fear of intimacy.
Parents, including Larson’s, often refuse to believe boys when they report sexual abuse, particularly if the perpetrator is a respected family friend, as his abuser was. The resulting anger and feelings of abandonment toward the parents can create an additional layer of emotional problems, experts say.
Although it’s generally believed that one in six boys is sexually abused before age 16, Larson said he believes the real number is one in four. That doesn’t include male victims molested by adult females, he added. Those incidents are seldom reported.
“You never hear about the mother, the stepmother, the aunt or the nun who sexually abuses boys,” he said. Actor/director Tyler Perry drew some attention to the issue when he announced on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” that he was sexually abused as a child by three men and the mother of one of this childhood friends.
The American Psychological Association says female perpetrators represent 14 percent of the cases that are reported by boys and 6 percent of the cases reported by girls.
Specific research into the prevalence and long-term effects of male sexual abuse has been complicated by the reluctance of men to report it. Guilt, shame and the social stigma still attached to homosexual acts fuel the silence, according to experts. So does the victim’s fear that he will be seen as someone who will become an abuser.
Moreover, one out of every three incidents of child sexual abuse is not remembered by the adult who experienced it, according to a 1998 study.
Larson, 65, didn’t begin coming to terms with his abuse until the 1980s, when he was married and a father. “I began realizing that there was something going on in my life, that something wasn’t right,” Larson said. “It’s like my body was telling me something was wrong.”
He began having “troubling dreams” and experiencing marital discord as well as issues with male authority figures. Later, he was able to trace his problems to anger over his parents’ failure to protect him and his loss of power to his abuser.
Larson, who was molested while he slept, developed sleep apnea so severe that it could have been fatal, he said.
His feelings about his abuse are summed up in a poem Larson wrote titled “I Can’t Do This ...”:
I was trained to become one of the damned.
A paranoid male ... always looking sideways – wondering who knew?
Can they see the naked shadows clinging to me? ...
I put this veil of shame between you and me
Disguised with expert maneuverings so you can’t see
The naked shadows clinging to me ...
In addition to victims, Larson has worked with perpetrators. When he facilitates perpetrator group meetings, he always lets the attendees know that he’s one of their victims.
Unfortunately, Larson said, he’s seen “very little regret” among perpetrators. When Larson confronted his own abuser, the man laughed at him “in a mocking way,” he said.
“They know what they’re doing isn’t right, but everything is OK unless you’re caught,” Larson said. “And they don’t think they’ll ever get caught.”
Despite homophobic myths spread by fundamentalist Christian organizations to marginalize gays, statistics compiled by the American Psychological Association show that heterosexual and gay men are equally likely to sexually abuse children. “A perception that most perpetrators are gay men is a myth and harmful stereotype,” the APA states.
Many abusers of boys have conventional marriages or outwardly successful relationships with adult partners or spouses, just as Sandusky did. The relative ease with which these men blend into society limits the ability of parents and school authorities to recognize them.
There are practical measures that can be taken to protect children from abuse, such as thorough background checks of people who work with kids, screening tests to identify potential abusers and parental watchfulness for signs of abuse. Those signs might include: sudden trouble walking or sitting, a chronic state of alert and fearfulness, an age-inappropriate knowledge of or interest in sex, fear of changing clothes in front of others and unusual efforts to avoid a particular adult.
Larson and others who work in the field hope that the high-profile incidents of abuse involving youth and religious leaders in recent years have heightened public awareness of the problem and will result in greater vigilance and more aggressive reporting and prosecution of perpeatrators.
Since the Penn State scandal came to light in November, lawmakers in more than a dozen states have introduced bills adding coaches, athletic directors and university officials to the list of “mandated reporters” of suspected child abuse or neglect.
The bankruptcy of archdioceses such as Milwaukee due to lawsuits over clerical abuse has incalculably increased the incentive of religious organizations to ferret out abusers. Churches and universities also are putting more money than ever into legal defense funds to fight sex abuse charges.
The unprecedented penalties that the NCAA imposed July 23 on Penn State create a dramatic new incentive for institutions to protect youths from perpetrators. The NCAA fined the school $60 million, imposed a four-year post-season ban on Penn State football, placed the program on probation for five years and enabled any current or incoming player to transfer and play immediately without restriction.
But sports writers noted that the most stinging sanction was that the NCAA vacated all of Penn State’s wins from 1998 to 2011. That means the late Joe Paterno, who successfully oversaw the university’s football program for nearly 46 years but turned a blind eye to complaints about Sandusky, is no longer the all-time winningest coach at college football’s highest level.
In announcing the sanctions, NCAA president Mark Emmert said he hoped the extreme punishment would deter the sort of indifferent environment in which Sandusky’s abuse flourished. He said that while examining the case, the NCAA “kept foremost in our thoughts the tragic damage that has been done to the victims and their families. No matter what we do here today, there is no action we can take that will remove their pain and anguish.”
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Who are the perpetrators?
• Most children are abused by someone they know and trust.
• An estimated 60 percent of perpetrators of sexual abuse are known to the child but are not family members, such as family friends, babysitters, childcare providers and neighbors.
• About 30 percent of perpetrators are family members, for example, fathers, brothers, uncles, cousins.
• Just 10 percent of perpetrators are strangers to the child.
• Child pornographers and other abusers who are strangers may make contact with children via the Internet.
• Not all perpetrators are adults – an estimated 23 percent of reported cases of child sexual abuse are perpetrated by individuals under the age of 18.
• Common characteristics of perpetrators include: a history of abuse (either physical or sexual); alcohol or drug abuse; little satisfaction with sexual relationships with adults; lack of control over their emotions; mental illness in some cases.
Source: American Psychological Association