How Oprah’s Story and Show Helped One Sexual Abuse Survivor with Down syndrome Beat the Odds

It started with one jarring phone call

“Conny, it’s Tammy. I think Jenny has been molested.” The grave tone of my sister Tammy’s voice told me that there was no doubt it was true.

How could anyone have hurt our precious, precious sister? Our sister, Jenny, has Down syndrome and an accompanying intellectual disability. Jenny is a person who would not hurt a fly, whose kindness and sensitivity are legend in the family; a person who could not stay in a room with a crying baby because it so upset her that she started crying too. A person with empathetic response to the world around her and a limited understanding of the evils of human nature, and a person whose disability influences her trusting nature.

My sister, Tammy, was home from college and doing what she always did when home, enjoying hang time with her big sister Jen. This often meant watching some of Jen’s favorite TV shows. Jen has a set schedule of shows she loves to watch so much that you look forward to the treat of watching them with her. Jenny’s usual routine is to return home from her supported day work program (currently she works as a candy striper at a hospital) and watch TV. On this particular day, like legions of other Americans, it was the Oprah Winfrey Show.

Tammy and Jen were about to catch one of Oprah’s most talked about shows. It ran on April 26, 2002, and was called “The Secret World of Child Molestation.” Oprah, a victim of child molestation herself, had a record of discussing the issue—even back when it was still largely taboo to discuss such matters in public. Even by 2002, when the topic had become more commonly discussed, this show still caused a stir because it presented a “deep dive” portrait on how often molesters are known and trusted members of your own family or community. The episode aired roughly concurrent to the still unfolding horror of the Catholic Church’s child molestation scandal in which known child abusing priests were left in parishes or moved from parish to parish, leaving epic numbers of devastated children in their wake.

Tammy found the show unsettling but was shaken to the core when Jen almost casually commented after then show, “Well that happened to me. But I’m over it now.” . . .

For the resolution to the Mayer family’s powerful story, view the whole piece here.

If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse or victimization:

  • Report to your local authorities or call The National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE. Often, people with communication limitations will need support when calling the hotline.
  • Once any emergency situations have been handled, contact The Arc’s National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability (NCCJD) for more information about this issue, assistance when pressing charges, and to learn how you as a crime victims can “beat the odds” in your journey from crime victim to survivor. Submit a request online.

To get involved and end abuse, sign The Arc’s pledge and help raise awareness with #RallyTogether.


NEW Conversation Guide and Pathways to Justice Model now available to accompany Pathways to Justice™ Video

This easy-to-use tool can be used to inform criminal justice professionals – law enforcement, victim service providers and attorneys – about the need for effective disability-related training in your state or community!

NCCJD’s new “Pathways to Justice™” video highlights challenges faced by people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the criminal justice system. This powerful tool educates criminal justice professionals, including law enforcement, victim advocates, legal professionals and others in the criminal justice system about cracks in the system that can have devastating effects. Only 4 minutes long, it’s a great conversation starter to use with local police departments, victim advocacy agencies, prosecutor’s and public defender’s offices and others to introduce the topic and explain why effective, ongoing training is needed.

Video Transcript


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