FEW subjects are more abhorrent than child abuse, with its shocking accounts of fathers who engage in sexual relations with daughters, mothers who beat children, and relatives who molest young nieces or nephews. Although extensive media coverage has helped to bring the problem out of the shadows in recent years, it still remains shrouded in secrecy and shame. It also appears to be on the increase, with nearly 3 million cases reported annually in the United States.
Now an independently produced documentary promises to draw new and potentially far-reaching attention to the issue. "Scared Silent: Exposing and Ending Child Abuse" will be broadcast tonight at 10 p.m. on NBC, CBS, and PBS. ABC will air it Sunday, Sept. 6 at 10 p.m. This marks the first time networks have cooperated in simultaneously broadcasting a non-news program in prime time. The special was funded by the USAA insurance agency.
Consider yourself forewarned: This may be one of the most difficult hours of television you have ever watched. Interviews with six abusers and the children they abused - sexually, physically, or psychologically - bring a disquieting immediacy to the problem by giving it real faces, real names. Graphic descriptions of sexual abuse leave little to the imagination, and occasional profanity underscores the rage some victims feel.
The program is hosted by Oprah Winfrey, who herself was sexually abused from the age of 9. It focuses on perpetrators who are, in Ms. Winfrey's words, "frighteningly typical."
Del, a successful engineer, maintained an incestuous relationship with his daughter Eva from the time she was 7 until she was 21. Tasha, a 15-year-old girl, began sexually abusing other children when she was 11 after her brother repeatedly molested her. Jill, a suburban mother living in an affluent neighborhood, accidentally killed her young son in 1967 after he and his brother "scattered potato chips across my nice, clean floor." And Brian, a factory worker, sexually abused his 8-year-old daughter Wendy
for two years. All the offenders were themselves abused as children.
At times a viewer can feel uncomfortably like a voyeur, witnessing scenes that should occur in private, such as Del's first meeting with his daughter in three years. But for the most part, nothing has been sensationalized, and a matter-of-fact tone prevails.
Inevitably, some of the questions that go beyond fix-it psychology do not get raised. But in spite of the searing honesty, the tears, anguish, and remorse, the emphasis is clearly on solutions. Family counselors offer suggestions on how to prevent and stop the problem. A toll-free hotline gives viewers access to other resources.
At a time when the national debate over "family values" threatens to romanticize the American family, this program serves as a reminder that too many case histories fall tragically short of the ideal.
Last year I interviewed several battered women in California who said that a 1984 TV docudrama about domestic violence, "The Burning Bed," made them realize for the first time that they were not alone. The program, they said, gave them courage to leave their abusive husbands. A viewer can only hope that "Scared Silent" will have similar positive effects, giving abused children the courage to speak up and adult offenders the courage to seek help.
As Brian's daughter Wendy says softly at the end of the program, "Tell anyone who will listen. Tell your parents, neighbors, friends. Tell your guidance counselor, your teachers. Tell anybody until somebody listens to it." To which her mother, speaking with clenched jaws, adds, "Every adult in this country needs to listen."
By airing the program simultaneously, networks increase the chances that viewers will do just that. They also lessen the chance that those who most need to see it will click the program - and its forthright discussion of the problem - away.