If, by some chance, you have not seen Dale Hansen's annual "Thank God for Kids" segment that aired last on Channel 8, it's above. It began making the rounds early this morning, in large part because of what Hansen acknowledged a few minutes into his essay about how children who are the victims of sexual assault "stay hidden in the darkness," obscured by shame -- theirs, perhaps, or maybe their parents'. Said Hansen, everyone knows somebody who's been sexually abused. "Because," he said, "you all know me," at which point he recounted an incident that occurred when he was 10 and a boy who was six years older "had my pants below my knees before he decided to let me go, and I don't know why."
Hansen says he wrote that piece a month ago, when he read it to his wife; she told him it was his best thing he'd ever done, but was "concerned about the topic" and how viewers might react. For the first time in as long as he can remember, he told friends and colleagues to tune in. He told them, "I'm proud of it." But at the last minute, Hansen tells Unfair Park, he was worried: He told producer Sean Hamilton he didn't think it was very good. But he never considered changing it. He read it as he'd written it weeks earlier. He would deal with the response later.
"And the response has been overwhelming," he says. "Flat-ass overwhelming. I thought it would get a good response. I didn't think it would be what it's been." He says he's about halfway through the hundreds of emails he's personally received; the station, he says, has gotten upwards of a thousand more.
"The thing I am happiest about is the real message I was trying to get across was the only victim we don't talk about here are the kids and the shame" that accompanies sexual assault, he says. "Maybe I've started to open the door, and as arrogant as it sounds, I hope it's true. I wanted to say there is no shame here, but at the same time I understand it. This started a couple of months ago, when the Penn State thing started. My buddies were defending [Joe] Paterno for not doing more, and several times I've had people say, 'Well, why wouldn't the kids have told somebody?' And I am sitting there quietly, saying to myself, 'I know why they wouldn't.' And that's what prompted me to finally say, 'OK.'"
He recounts some of the emails he's read so far. One is from a man who writes, "I've kept my secret for 61 years. I'm telling you first and everyone else tomorrow." Another comes from a woman whose daughter was assaulted with she was 8. Years later, the mother writes Hansen, the girl wanted to begin a website called We Have No Shame. The mother wouldn't allow it at the time.
"She wrote, 'I was ashamed, and I felt like I had failed as a parent,'" Hansen says. "The mother said, 'I didn't want my neighbors to know, but now I will tell my daughter we'll start the website.'" Hansen says half the emails he's received today begin with tales of sexual assault at a young age, each one kept a secret till now. I asked if he was prepared for such a reaction.
"God, no, not remotely," he says. "There's the line in the middle of the piece when I said everyone knows a victim because you all know me. When I read it Sean said, 'I''m glad you put it like that, because I don't think I do know anybody.' And I said, 'Sean, I bet you $100 you do.' And now, unfortunately, I am more convinced than ever."
Hansen, though, takes issue with those who would call him "courageous" for his confession late night. He insists it was far from.
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"It would have taken courage if it had happened to me last week," he says. "And I don't know if I have that kind of courage. I hope I would, and the point was people should have that courage. But if it happened to me last week ... I don't know. That would would take some ..." He pauses.
Point is, says the sports anchor: He never told his parents what happened. Never told his friends. Never told anyone, except his wife. And it could have been worse. The kid, the son of a transient worker who didn't stick around long, left town soon after the attack. Hansen never saw him again. "It's not like I had to go to school for two years and look at him," he says.
Hansen says he didn't tell his father because the old man wouldn't have understood. Dale was scared to say anything; the old man had a temper, after all. So he kept quiet, and the boy responsible for the assault skipped town without anyone ever knowing. That's what Hansen's always felt guilty about: God knows how many other little boys experienced what 10-year-old Dale did that afternoon on the ball field all because he was too afraid to tell anyone, especially his folks. Which, in the end, Hansen says, was the real point of his piece.
"I know a lot of parents who say, 'And how was your day, Johnny?' and that's it," he says. "I talk to my kids. It's easy. But to cross to the next line to where your kids are not afraid to talk to you? I was scared to death of my dad. I grew up in Mayberry, and every night my mom and dad were there for dinner, and they asked, 'How was school? How was your basketball game? But my dad never once made me feel comfortable about talking to him. He was there every night, but under no circumstances could I tell him something like that. What I was trying to say last night is: Talk to your kid and make sure they're not afraid to talk to you. That's the real issue."