all things social work

CSA: Dirty secrets can be found in any town

on December 19, 2011


Published: Sunday, December 18, 2011, 11:08 AM

The Penn State and Syracuse University child sex abuse scandals, as horrific as they might be, are not isolated incidents as we would like to believe. Every city and town in this country is being stalked by child predators who use the very organizations designed to build young boys into men as their hunting grounds.

Institutions like Little League, Scouting, churches, schools and mentoring programs are frequently used by predators to identify boys who have little or no parental oversight or who are considered at- risk, to methodically and quite effectively lure them into a sexual relationship. I use the word “relationship” because that is what it becomes. I know because it happened to me.

I was 11 years old when my best friend, Richie, invited me to attend church with him and his family. The church in a small Florida town was arguably the biggest and most influential church in my hometown. I was excited to go. Before long, I was attending the church regularly, and I felt like I belonged.

I started singing in the youth choir, led by the charismatic, sometimes silly, always entertaining Cal, the minister of music. It didn’t take much time for Cal to learn that my parents were divorced, my mother was an alcoholic, and my father didn’t have much to do with his children.

I was excited when Cal invited Richie and me to go fishing with him. He asked our mothers for permission to spend the night at his father-in-law’s house so we could get an early start the next morning. Shortly after a home-cooked Southern-fried meal, Richie and I were led to a bedroom with two wooden frame twin beds on opposite sides of the room. Richie, Cal and I would be sleeping in the room, but as an 11-year-old boy, I didn’t think anything of it.

Cal played “eeny, meeny, miny, moe” to determine who he was going to share a bed with, and I lost. After Cal got in bed with me, I recall a little bit of tickling and playful wrestling. Soon Richie was asleep, and I was nearly asleep when I felt Cal’s hand slide between my stomach and underwear. I lay there paralyzed while he moved his hand farther down and started fondling my genitals.

That was the first incident in what would become years of sexual abuse, which happened three to five times a week until I was around 14 years old. It happened at his house, at the church, at my house, in his van, camping and all the way to Portland, Maine, and back while on a church-sponsored mission trip with 40 other kids. Basically, anywhere he could get me alone.

I used to wonder how my life would be different if Richie lost the “eeny, meeny, miny, moe” that night, but now realize that it wasn’t random at all. Cal used Richie as a tool to get to me. Richie belonged to a close and loving family, and his mother would never have tolerated the amount of attention Cal began to lavish on me.

Soon, I was part of Cal’s family. I was spending the night at his house often, where I felt loved and welcome. He was taking me camping and fishing, buying me things and letting me drive him around town at the age of 12. I learned to mentally detach myself from the 15 or 20 minutes of abuse I was subjected to every time we were alone in exchange for all the things I received and got to experience in return.

I didn’t know at the time I was training my mind to avoid intimacy, which would haunt me the rest of my life.

I remember Cal waiting for me after school one day. He was visibly shaken. He told me that the pastor of the church suggested we were spending too much time together, and it was making some people at the church uncomfortable. Cal sobbed as we sat in his van behind my house when he told me we couldn’t see each other any more.

Secretly, I was happy, but it did hurt to see Cal so devastated. Within a month, he was dominating my time as much or more than before. There were so many people who knew or should have known there was something inappropriate about our relationship. Cal’s wife, who interrupted him sexually abusing me at least a dozen times but never quite caught him in the act, had to know. Clearly someone at the church said something, but no one ever intervened or bothered to pull me aside and ask me a few questions.

It was easier, apparently, to believe that what they suspected wasn’t happening than to find the courage to rip a young boy from the clutches of a predator. Or was it something more sinister? Did people know what was going on and not say anything in order to protect the church from controversy? I guess I’ll never know.

J_cobb.JPGJoseph Cobb

As I got older, I was finally able to free myself from Cal’s control and influence, but he didn’t give up easily. Before long, another young boy from church was going fishing and camping with Cal.

It wasn’t until I was 36 that I told anyone about the years of abuse I endured. I had run out of excuses for my inability to be intimate with my second wife, so I started seeing a psychiatrist. With her help, I began peeling away all the layers of guilt, shame, betrayal and resentment. It wasn’t my fault. I was an innocent prepubescent boy who was manipulated and used.

At the time, I was at the height of a stellar career with the Marion County, Fla., sheriff’s department. I confided in the sheriff, who I also considered my friend, about my childhood abuse. He responded by saying that I was lying and that I was gay. Later, during a civil litigation, Cal admitted to sexually abusing me for years, just like I had said.

Child molestation is a nuclear bomb. I can easily name two dozen people who were directly affected by my abuse, and each can name several more who were indirectly affected. It is every community’s dirty little secret. As you read this, some of you are thinking about someone in your town or maybe even in your own family who makes you uncomfortable when they are around children.

Are you going to say something or say nothing? Speak up. Ask awkward questions. Demand explanations. Do background checks. Explain boundaries to your children. Bookmark the National Sex Offender Public Website ( and use it often. I wish someone would have done that for me.

JOSEPH L. COBB retired from a career in law enforcement in 2007 after 24 years. He now lives in Costa Rica.


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