Every 90 seconds a child is sexually assaulted in America. That’s according to the National Center for Victims of Crime. 90% know the perpetrator in some way. Childhood sexual abuse is an insidious crime, shrouded in secrecy. As KLCC’s Tiffany Eckert reports, adult survivors are asking Oregon lawmakers to break the silence with Erin's Law, an education bill bent toward prevention.
When Carolee Horning was 13 she was an altar girl at a Catholic church in Reedsport. She remembers when the new priest, Father Edward Altstock, arrived.
Horning: “We became really good friends, I didn’t understand it at the time but he was grooming me. Between the ages of about 14 to my early 20s we had a sexual relationship. He was in his late 60s.”
At the time, Carolee thought the special attention he gave her was love. After intensive therapy and outreach from other sex assault victims, she now knows what happened to her was abuse. Not only was the perpetrator in a position of power over her, she says he used isolation to keep her quiet. And he got really tight with her parents.
Horning: “He groomed them as well. He became friends with them, that’s part of what they do. And my parents trusted me with him. I mean he was a priest.”
Carolee wasn’t safe.
Horning: “Things weren’t right. I was told not to tell my parents. They wouldn’t understand. None of my friends knew. Nobody knew."
Erin Merryn would have known. She's behind Erin's Law and she's made it her life’s mission to protect children from sexual assault. Born and raised in Chicago, Erin was sexually abused beginning at the tender age of six.
Merryn: “At my best friend’s house. It was her uncle that lived in the home. And it went on from 6, 7, 8 and a half years old. There was rape and I was repeatedly told, ‘I know where you live, I’ll come get you.”
Merryn says no one taught her how to speak up and tell. Even moving away didn’t end the abuse. In a new neighborhood-- down the street from extended family-- an older cousin began molesting Erin. It continued until she found out her younger sister was also being abused. This broke her silence.
Today, Erin Merryn is a social activist and advocate for children. The 30-year old has been in the national spotlight as a guest on Oprah and Katie Curic. Merryn believes education is the key to ending childhood sexual abuse. She’s drafted legislation called Erin’s Law requiring public schools to teach kids, K-12, on appropriate touch and recognizing and reporting suspected sexual abuse. Merryn says school professionals often handle it the wrong way.
Merryn: “They will call home where the perpetrator lives and confront the mother and say ‘your child is saying her step father is doing this’ and often that puts the child back into the situation and sadly those kids recant by the time the police get involved.”
So far, Erin’s Law has passed in 20 states and is pending in 21 more. Oregon Senator Tim Knopp of Bend wants Oregon to pass this legislation.
Knopp: “If our schools and our society are not there to protect our children then I’m not sure what they are there for.”
Senator Knopp will introduce Erin’s Law during the current legislative session. He says colleagues from both sides of the aisle have expressed support. Knopp says because related curriculum already exists, implementation of the law would cost school districts very little.
Knopp: “I think the biggest push back will be this is gonna take away from instruction time but we take away time to have fire drills, we take away from education time to have tsunami drills and earthquake drills and the like. You know, for a child’s safety, I think this falls in that realm.”
Knopp says Erin Merryn plans to travel to Salem to testify before lawmakers.
Knopp: “Erin has been a speaker, an advocate and an author on this issue. And went through something that no kid should ever have to go through. So we’re relying on her testimony and her story to create a law that we think will work here in Oregon.”
Adult sexual abuse survivor Carolee Horning says if Erin’s Law had been enacted when she was a girl, she and her parents may have learned how to recognize the patterns of a pedophile.
Horning: “If someone could have explained and made it clear to me that we were spending too much time together. It shouldn’t have been allowed for us to be alone at all. So somebody should have said that‘s not right. That’s not right.”
See links below if you seek more information about Erin's Law, publications or sexual assault support services in Oregon:
Sexual Assault Support Services - SASS
example of Erin's Law legislation