Hollywood couldn’t have written a better plot: an all-American man plays a respected pastor and father of seven. Add in good looks and charm, and you’ve got the makings of a beloved television character.
And the perfect cover for a predator.
Stephen Collins, who played Eric Camden, the dad/pastor on the long-running TV series 7th Heaven, has allegedly admitted to molesting numerous children. The admission, made on tape during a 2012 therapy session with Collins’ now-estranged wife, Faye Grant, was publicly released last week, resulting in dramatic fallout, including criminal investigations in California and New York.
But this story is bigger than Collins himself. It’s not just about whether or not he is guilty; it’s also about what he represents—the stereotype of the cunning and untouchable offender. A man who could not be brought down by his victims, a complicit Hollywood community. Or the police.
It took a taped confession—and TMZ.
The Collins case should be a wake-up call for parents to recognize that even under the trusted, respected, suave veneer of a TV star, your child can still be in danger.
Here are five lessons from Collins’ case to help parents protect children against abuse:
1) Abusers are cunning, using power, prestige—even fame—to groom victims and their families. According to the allegations, Collins used his popularity as an actor and his connections to Hollywood elite for “grooming,” the process by which a predator flatters and manipulates a child, isolates that child from family and friends, and creates a “compliant” victim. Add celebrity status to the mix, and the grooming process is even more enticing. After all, when a celebrity predator pays special attention to a child, gives the child special access to people and events, and seduces parents and family members with stardom, it’s easy to isolate the child for sexual abuse—and silence her for a lifetime.
2) Families often protect alleged offenders, even if it defies logic. Collins’ estranged wife recorded the confession in a therapy session in 2012, a full two years before it was made public. News reports have claimed she suspected Collins has abused children for decades. But she didn’t report. Why? No one wants to believe that someone they love and trust is an abuser, be it a husband, aunt, grandfather, priest, scout leader, coach or teacher. The lesson in all of this: The needs of victims must ALWAYS trump protecting alleged offenders. If you suspect abuse or if someone tells you that they have sexually abused a child, report it. Period.
3) It is difficult for victims to come forward. Collins allegedly has molested numerous victims. Why didn’t they report? Think about it: How powerful does an 8-year-old child feel after being carefully groomed and sexually abused by a handsome, charming television star? It’s likely, too, that the child thinks no one will believe her or that she did something to “ask for” the abuse. And even if that abused child does come forward against a prominent, respected member of the community, she may struggle to be heard and believed. And then there’s always a chance for victim shaming. If a child is abused by a celebrity, as in this case, the victim and her family may be portrayed as “money grubbers” and “publicity hounds.” Such name-calling can be as damaging as the abuse itself, so the victims remain in shame and silence. If the predator is a woman, it becomes even more difficult for victims to be heard and believed.
4) Organizations may turn a blind eye until there is a scandal. Once the story leaked, it didn’t take long for Hollywood to react: The Academy for the Performing Arts swiftly jettisoned Collins, reruns of 7th Heaven have been shelved, and he has been dropped by his talent agency and from numerous upcoming roles. (Collins also resigned last week from the Screen Actors’ Guild Board.) Yes, it was a sufficiently quick reaction. But none of these groups has said that they will reserve judgment until after a verdict (such as with the Michael Jackson case). So what’s the problem? The reaction was so swift that we can’t help but wonder: Did all of these groups have suspicions or know about the abuse but refused to do anything until it became a public scandal (á la scandals in the Boy Scouts and Catholic Church)? The lesson? No institution or organization will protect or advocate for your child better than you, the parent or caregiver.
5) All states need firm, victim-friendly civil and criminal statutes of limitations for child sex abuse. It can take victims decades to heal enough to report the abuse. One of Collins’ victims came forward in 2012, for example, but police were unable to pursue the allegations because the criminal statute of limitations had already expired. If New York had a strong civil law for victims—like states such as Minnesota and Hawaii—the alleged victim could have used the civil courts to expose Collins, warn others about the risk, and encourage younger victims to come forward. And while New York is on track with a bill currently in the legislature, other states have a long way to go, including my own, California. Our Governor, Jerry Brown, just vetoed a civil bill for victims, paving the way for alleged predators like Collins to abuse more victims.