AUGUSTA — Many sexual assault cases – especially ones involving a well-liked alleged perpetrator – divide communities. Whether the person charged is a much-admired high school principal or a parish priest, high-profile sexual assault cases tend to leave alleged victims publicly shunned and their reputations damaged.

Victims don’t have much to gain by reporting sexual assault. In fact, they often have a lot to lose, which is why sexual assault is, according to the U.S. Justice Department, the most unreported violent crime in the United States. In addition to the deeply personal nature of sexual assault victimization, victims often experience serious backlash when they report. They’re met with disbelief. Sometimes, they receive death threats and withdraw from cases entirely. Other victims see that backlash, and the cycle continues.

Criminal cases – especially sexual assault cases – that challenge our beliefs about the world are hard. It’s hard to make sense of the possibility that a well-regarded person would “risk everything” by abusing their power and hurting someone else.

To make sense of it all, we look for specific “types” of people who sexually assault or abuse others. It’s where we find comfort. It’s what makes it easier for us to leave our children’s side, for us to accept a ride from an Uber driver we’ve never met, and it makes it easier to move through the world feeling safe.

Unfortunately, these beliefs also lead us to ignore what in hindsight was in plain sight – that people who are liked and do good things are also capable of doing really bad things to other people. It is especially hard to imagine that they would abuse vulnerable people they are meant to help and mentor. And yet, this is frequently what happens. Jerry Sandusky, Larry Nassar, Bill Cosby and thousands of Catholic priests were not strangers to the people they routinely and systematically abused. They were helpers.

Likewise, we look for specific types of victims. Usually, a perfect victim is never in trouble and would never lie. We ask that victims have no prior sexual history. We ask that they be able to fully – and accurately – recount each moment of what is one of the most traumatic events in their life.

Based on those criteria, would you be believed? I certainly wouldn’t be.

As a result, we deem someone who isn’t the perfect victim to be unbelievable. And that person is especially unbelievable when the perpetrator doesn’t fit our idea of what a perpetrator should look like.

We recently saw a similar story play out in Kennebunk, where a teacher was acquitted last month of sexually abusing a minor. Many of her colleagues stood outside the York County Courthouse in support of her – and to publicly discredit the student she was accused of victimizing.

Our justice system is structured so that a person charged with a crime is found guilty or not guilty based on evidence and facts. We agree that we should not make decisions about a person’s guilt or innocence based on their likability. Nor should we make decisions about whether someone has been the victim of a crime based on what others think of them or their previous behavior.

And yet, we rarely leave our biases checked at the door.

One of the tragedies of cases like the case in Kennebunk is that the support for the person charged often leads other victims in their community to think that there is no support for them.

It’s important for every victim to know that there is support. By calling your local sexual assault support center at 1-800-871-7741, you can talk to a trained advocate to help you think about what is next – or just talk about how you’re feeling. You can also visit mecasa.org/onlinehelp/ for information about how advocates can help and how to contact them by text or chat.

Victims of sexual violence deserve support and empathy and options – no matter who they are, no matter their history and no matter who the alleged perpetrator might be.

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