In many cases involving criminal sexual abuse of children, the conviction results from one or a few individual instances of criminal conduct occurring within the course of a much larger, ongoing sexually abusive relationship.
The cases usually follow the same pattern:
- Man encounters child
- Man molests child
- Man motivates child to remain silent
- Molestation continues
- Molestation eventually comes to light
- Child must be convinced that it's okay to talk about the molestation
It's the third step that's the key. Getting the child to keep the molestation a secret is usually accomplished through a threat or, less often, a promise. This is the glue that holds the sexually abusive relationship together. It's also one of the most psychologically-damaging components of molestation because it (1) prolongs the abuse, (2) allows the offender the opportunity to engage in more frequent abuse, (3) instills a sense of fear in the child, and (4) allows the passage of time to erode the evidence of abuse by preventing ready detection.
In case after case, evidence comes in showing that the adult threatened the child (successfully) into keeping the abuse a secret from parents, teachers, friends, and everyone else. See, e.g., People v. Rushing, 192 Ill. App. 3d 444, 447, 548 N.E.2d 788, 790 (1989) (defendant threatened to kill victim's parents if she told about abuse); People v. Stechly, 225 Ill. 2d 246, 257, 870 N.E.2d 333, 342 (2007) (defendant told victim that her mother would be mad at her if she learned of sexual conduct); People v. Holloway, 177 Ill. 2d 1, 5, 682 N.E.2d 59, 61 (1997) (defendant threatened to hurt victim if she told anyone); People v. Kitch, 392 Ill. App. 3d 108, 112, 915 N.E.2d 29, 33 (2009) (defendant threatened to kill victim if she told anyone); People v. Stewart, 303 Ill. App. 3d 844, 847, 708 N.E.2d 1241, 1244 (1999) (step-father defendant told victim that he would go to prison if she told anyone); People v. Greenwood, 2012 IL App (1st) 100566, 971 N.E.2d 1116, 1119 (defendant threatened to hurt victim's mother if she told anyone); People v. Monroe, 366 Ill. App. 3d 1080, 1084, 852 N.E.2d 888, 894 (2006) (defendant threatened to beat victim if she told); People v. Pitts, 299 Ill. App. 3d 469, 472, 701 N.E.2d 198, 201 (1998) (defendant threatened to kill victim if she told anyone); People v. Moss, 275 Ill. App. 3d 748, 751, 656 N.E.2d 193, 196 (1995) (defendant threatened to kill victim if she told anyone).
The Criminal Code should specifically prohibit making threats or promises to a child intended to conceal sexual abuse.
I propose the following amendment to the Criminal Code:
720 ILCS 5/11-10 Concealment of Sexual Abuse
(a) A person violates this section when he or she communicates to a child under 13 years of age, directly or indirectly by any means, a threat, promise, or other statement intended to influence the child from disclosing a violation or attempted violation of Section 11-1.20, 11-1.30, 11-1.40, 11-1.50, 11-1.60, 11-6, or 11-6.6 of this Code committed by a person 17 years of age or older.
(b) A violation of this section is a Class 2 felony.
This section goes beyond the offense of Intimidation (720 ILCS 5/12-6) because it applies to "promises" or "other statements" instead of simply "threats." This is important because perpetrators of sexual abuse upon children don't always rely upon "threats" to influence their victims to keep quiet. See, e.g., In re Rolandis G., 232 Ill. 2d 13, 19, 902 N.E.2d 600, 604 (2008) (defendant had victim "pinky swear" not to tell anyone).
This proposed offense also catches harmful conduct that otherwise goes unpunished. For example, assume the defendant sexually abuses his five-year-old stepdaughter. Assume he also makes his seven-year-old stepson promise not to tell anyone of the abuse, which then continues for a year until the children's mother finally discovers it through some other means. The defendant's conduct toward the stepson is independently harmful, and should be independently punished, because (1) it allows the abuse to go on over a longer period of time, likely resulting in instances of abuse that go uncharged, and (2) it will likely psychologically damage the stepson by making him feel guilty for enabling the abuse of his sister to continue. As far as I can tell, the current Criminal Code provides no means for punishing the defendant's conduct with regard to the stepson.
This proposed offense would also cover the conduct of those who did not necessarily commit the underlying abuse. On occasion, a family member will persuade the victim to remain quiet in an effort to protect the abuser. This too can have the effect of prolonging the abuse. If the family member who stood idly by while the abuse occurred can be charged with this offense, it could provide an important bargaining chip for the prosecution to obtain that person's cooperation as a witness.
I've also included an exception when the perpetrator is himself a child (under 17 years of age). I thought this exception was appropriate to address situations where a parent is faced with conduct by one child against the other. I don't think that a parent should be made a felon if, during that difficult situation, he or she makes statements to one of the children that could be interpreted as intended to influence the child from disclosing the conduct. In such a situation, the parent is in a sense a victim as well, and it seems like too much of an intrusion into the family unit to apply the proposed law in that context.
I should mention that I am usually not inclined to support more and more criminal laws targeting child sex-offenses. I generally see no shortage of ways to bring child molesters to justice. I acknowledge that because no legislator in his right mind would vote against any increase in penalties for child sex crimes, bad laws can get passed without careful scrutiny. However, I think that this proposed addition to the Criminal Code is appropriate and limited.
*One last note: I understand that the language "influence the child from disclosing" might seem kind of awkward. It is. But based on the many statutes that I've read, I've found that awkwardness is often times preferable to vagueness. I think that anyone reading the statute would understand the meaning of "influence the child from disclosing," even though that particular arrangement of words is novel and unfamiliar. To me, it broadly conveys the idea of pressuring the child not to disclose.
I just came across this in an article from today's News Gazette about a man charged with molesting a girl over the course of six months:
Sullivan said the encounters between Dorsey and the girl happened at two different homes at times when he and the girl were alone in the same room.
"Each time he threatened that if she told, he'd beat her," Sullivan said.