WASHINGTON — More than two dozen people showed up at the sentencing of a teacher convicted of sexually abusing children at the school where he worked.
But they weren’t there to support the children.
They were there to support 50-year-old John Vigna, who’d just been sentenced to 48 years behind bars. They wore white T-shirts that said “#VignaStrong.”
Jennifer Alvaro, a licensed clinical social worker who has worked treating child sex offenders, said that kind of demonstration of support for an accused (and even a convicted) abuser is not uncommon, especially in high-profile cases.
“When prominent people are found to have committed child sexual abuse, there’s often supporters who come out to support the offender, not the victims.”
Alvaro said that people who abuse children put themselves in positions where they have access to children, and they work to gain trust. “The way people get access to children is by grooming the adults around the child. Making people believe they’re a good person, they’re a kind person, they’re a helpful person, they’re safe to have around children.”
The more prominent a person is in a community, the less likely it is that people will believe the victims, and the more likely it is that people will believe the offender, Alvaro said.
People close to the offender suffer from a kind of cognitive dissonance, she said: How can a person who seems so good do something that is so deeply disturbing?
These cases, she said, leave those close to the offender asking themselves how they could possibly have misjudged that person.
One of the greatest indicators of how well a victim of child abuse or sexual abuse will do in the future, Alvaro said, is whether they were believed when they came forward to tell someone they’d been abused. When children see adults rally around someone convicted of abuse, it’s confusing and damaging, she said.
“The children who are victimized by the offender are then revictimized,” Alvaro said.
A guide on how to talk to children about sexual abuse adapted from the American School Counselor Association, the National Association of School Psychologists and “Stop It Now!” includes advice for adults, urging them to take seriously a child’s reports of abuse.
According to the guide, an adult’s message to a child should be, “I will always believe you.”
That guide appears in a link on the website of Cloverly Elementary, where Vigna taught for more than two decades.