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Testimony before the Pennsylvania House Children and Youth Committee in support of increased mandated reporting of childhood sexual abuse & opening a “window” in the statute of limitations.
“I want to thank you all for being here, for convening this meeting, and for listening.
My name is Chris Gavagan and for the past two years I have been producing and directing a documentary called Coached into Silence which deals specifically with the sexual abuse of boys by their coaches. The silence referred to in the title is threefold: the silence of shame victims can find themselves shrouded in, the silence of institutions protecting themselves before children, and finally the legal silencing of the victims in their search for justice.
The process of first researching and then filming Coached into Silence, which is ongoing, would have been enough to make me a lowercase “e” expert on the subject of child sexual abuse, yet my expertise is of the decidedly capital “E” variety.
I am today because I am also an invisible, untabulated statistic. In my quest to be a better hockey player, having just turned fourteen years old, I skated down the wrong block in my neighborhood and into the carefully laid trap of a serial child molester. On this tree-lined street, a street just like yours, I would become the victim of an uncounted crime, perpetrated by a unaccountable criminal.
That day is the B.C./A.D line of demarcation in my life. My childhood ended on a Fall day in 1988 and that was that. I was exposed to everything that a parent would try to protect their child from. An adult world, a darker world, a world that is cruel and obscene. A world where you will be lied to and used, all the while being told that it was for your own good. One “It’s okay to curse here, we’re all guys” at a time. One beer at a time. Or one dozen. One Playboy at a time. One glimpse of pornography at a time leading the way for a hundred more. One “massage” of a pulled muscle at a time. A child in the hands of a polished master manipulator, who had perfected his grooming process over decades.
Fifteen years ago I was certain that I would take this secret with me to the grave. I had resigned myself to a life as Damaged Goods. As someone who brought nothing but pain to anyone foolish enough to care. I had also resigned myself to life as a liar, because from the moment you first answer the question “Is everything okay?” with “Yes” you have lied about something that is fundamental. Those lies and the echoes from those years of abuse poisoned every single human interaction that I had for a decade. That I am not counted among the other statistics…the addicted, the incarcerated, the incapacitated or the suicides, is it’s own miracle.
The crimes that occurred in & around State College are appalling, heartbreaking andanything but unique. The nation as a whole seems to be paying attention because of the celebrity status of the names & institution involved. Yet the scale is always the same to the victims. The loss of innocence, the shattering of trust, the sense of betrayal, the shame…occupies every inch of its container. “Grief fills the room up of my absent child”, said Shakespeare. Both my parents & their youngest son would concur.
In directing & producing my film for the last two years our research has introduced us to thousands of similar cases. All that changes are the proper names for the actors, but the roles played are the same. The pedophile is no doubt the lead, but without the supporting actors this tragic show would have a very short run. Without the willful blindness of the Head in the Sand Ensemble, the “letter of the law” of the Moral Minimalists, the excuses proffered by the Apologists, the Moneymen jangling their thirty pieces of silver backstage, and the uncritical praise of the Hero Worshipers there would be no show at all.
The Sandusky horror show has made itself a Broadway performance of ‘How Not to Handle a Child Rapist in Your Ranks”, but trust this: the curtain rises on this disaster of dramaturgy in Community theaters, in every community, every night. All the world’s a stage for this particular play. In every place that there is a hierarchical structure and a chain of command to be followed…whether in schools or sports leagues, our churches to our military to our families themselves..bucks are being passed, free passes are being given and all in the name of protecting a reputation or a brand, a legacy or a surname.
In these cases, bystanders are the load-bearing walls of the child rapist’s house of horrors. Without their support, the crimes would collapse in on the criminal almost immediately. Instead, each head turned away, each excuse offered, each whispered benefit of the doubt that it was “just a one time thing” or worse…each willful coverup of a known crime adds up to a generation of children used, raped, sodomized and eventually disenfranchised and silenced by laws that failed to protect them in the first place.
The Law is supposed to function as a system of incentives, which incentivize us to behave responsibly, or face the system of accountability which is in place. It’s why we wear our seat belts. In fact it’s why we have them at all. So buckle up, I’d like to show just a few moments of interviews that I conducted with my own former coach and abuser. A man that I did report to the league to end his access to children. A league that did fire him, but did no more, allowing him unfettered access to a whole new crop of young boys, while coaching just six miles down the road. Prior to this interview, I had not had contact with him for nearly 15 years.
(I then played four minutes from interviews with my own abuser. His admitting sexual abuse and justifying it by calling it a “lesson”. His concern that doing this interview could put him in jail. His relieved laughter when the issue of New York’s statute of limitations—age 23—is raised, and then this man walking away, fading back in to his neighborhood.)
Coached into Silence is not a monster movie. The man that you met in that video would—to this day—be described by dozens of people around him as “the nicest guy you’ll ever meet” You’ve seen that face. There are no horns on that head. You’ve seen that smile; there no fangs among those teeth. Yet the sound that has persevered longest & recurred to me the most often in my life is those teeth. The sound of those dentures being removed.
The wet clicking sound of a serial child sexual predator moving in on his prey. When he was sure that a just-turned-fourteen-year old had consumed enough alcohol to pass out…after countless hours of shock & awe bombardment of pornography. After months of methodical grooming, semi-conscious, I looked down to see the bald head of my hockey coach…while the wet, clicking sound of dentures being removed boomed in my ears. It still does. It always will.
Because I eventually reported the man that you saw on that screen mere months beyond an arbitrary statute of limitations in my state, he—who explains performing oral sex on children as a lesson—lives freer than I have been any day since the age of fourteen.
I must add, that after sexually abusing children for a minimum of three decades, that man would also pass any background check in America. The law says: Unprosectuable, unregistered, unrestrained. His neighbors will not see a red flag on any registry warning them to keep their children away. Just as crucially, without the simple truth that victims of these crimes can so easily provide, law enforcement will continue be forced to fight these crimes blindfolded.
In the world of Homeland Security, the mantra “See something, say something” has gained traction and proven effective. Yet we are missing an entirely different and much more prevalent terrorism. When it comes to the crime of sexual abuse of our children, “See something, say something” has too often been replaced with “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.” This is not good enough.
Maya Angelou writes: “History, despite it’s wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced, with courage need not be lived again. The key phrase is “if faced with courage”.
When a child’s future is hanging by a thread, there can be no margin for error. We must face the wrenching pain of what we see or suspect with courage—and make no mistake—the difference can mean life or death to a child
My documentary focuses on boys who were sexually abused by coaches because I was one of those boys. Life handed me and so many others that narrative, yet the statistics for girls are even more staggering.
Two days ago, my wife & I saw the face of our daughter for the first time, in utero.
We will meet her early this spring. When that day arrives, I need to be able to look into her eyes and know that I am doing everything that is humanly possible to keep her safe. Just as you need to be able to go home to your own children, to see your own nieces & nephews, your grandchildren….and look them in the eyes and know that you are facing this issue—with courage. That you are doing everything within the power your elected position provides to keep them safe. You must answer to those eyes. Today you are a step closer. You are facing this issue with courage today by being here, by convening this hearing, by lending us your ears and your attention this December day.
If protections are strengthened and bills become laws enacted, come springtime your courage to look at the tragedies surrounding Penn State and provide remedies can be the cause of the thaw that turns the tide of this epidemic forever.
Moral minimums will not do that. Passing the buck will not do that. Denial will not do that. Heads in the sand will not do that. Wishing it would go away will not make it so. The time is now to face these troubled and tragic histories with courage.
History is being written every day, with every choice. Every action & every inaction. You have the power to write a safer & more just future wherein you have demonstrated that the protection of our children is paramount. Where you have done better than the moral minimalists and their “I wish I had done more”s. You are all here today, and you are listening. That gives me hope that all of you; elected to serve the people of Pennsylvania, might use this tragic moment as an opportunity to do the right thing. By leading by example. By facing this with courage these dark days can be transformed into a light. If sunlight is the best disinfectant, the time is now to unshutter and open a window provision in your statute of limitations. Let the light of justice, the light of hope, and the light of truth lead the way.
Thank you for your time.”
The day the nation awoke to learn of the charges against former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky the one reaction that I was unable to muster was shock.
Not because we had been following the developments regarding Sandusky since March (we have), but because of the 2+ year process of research & production for Coached into Silence.
We had investigated hundreds of cases and those cases were chosen from among thousands of others which we could have chosen to pursue. Dozens more every day. Nearly point by point, any of these cases only distinguish themselves from the events at Penn State by the proper names involved.
There is a template which you could lay over nearly every story where an institution has chosen to protect itself rather than the children which fits PSU all too well. There are countless Joe Paternos, following the letter of the law and doing no more. There are untold numbers of Mike McQuerys. There are Jerry Sanduskys in every town, in your town. The story broke and, as ever, I was heartbroken for the victims and their families. The story broke and I was outraged yet again by the protecting of the ‘brand’ while children are thrown to the wolves. The story broke yet what I could not be, was shocked.
Given what we know about predators of this sort, tragically the only thing that could shock me in this case would be hearing that the number of boys who fell victim to this man doesn’t eventually approach triple-digits.