Like some of you, I’ve been following the breaking story from Penn State. A former assistant football coach has been charged with sexually abusing at least eight boys (the number is almost certain to rise). Some of the incidents were discovered but various authorities never followed through. As a result Sandusky was allowed to continue abusing boys.
As I’ve followed not only the reporting on the case but also the discussion that has gone along with it, I’ve realized that there is still an awful lot of misinformation about child sexual abuse. Let me respond to things I have read first.
“The parents didn’t report it for ten years, so it couldn’t have been that bad.” Child sexual abuse flourishes in a context of secrecy and shame. Often that shame is encouraged by the abuser. Although it has gotten much, much better, children still often do not tell. They are led to believe that no one will believe them. (This is especially true if the abuser is someone with high standing in the community, such as a coach or minister.) Or people will know how bad they are.
“Children who were abused grow up to be abusers themselves.” It is true that many abusers were themselves abused as a child. But the reverse is not true. Most victims do not grow up to abuse.
“Joe Paterno wasn’t told about the rape (witnessed by the graduate assistant). He was only told there was fondling.” Really? As if that makes a difference? Abuse is abuse.
One of the things that has jumped out at me is that knowing that Sandusky had a serious allegation of sexual abuse in his history, Paterno and others did not question his charity work with troubled boys. This is, in fact, a classic operating style of a pedophile. They put themselves in positions in which they have lots of contact with children. They then befriend the kids who are especially vulnerable – the ones that have a troubled background or who don’t quite fit in. The extra attention makes the child feel special but also opens the door for the abuse to unfold.
I have heard people argue that Paterno did his duty in reporting the incident, and as a non-witness, he had no say in seeing the final report. But if I know that someone has been accused of abuse and I know that someone is working in an organization that puts them around children, I am going to do whatever it takes to find out the results of that abuse investigation. It is not enough to say, “Don’t bring that around here.” (Sandusky was barred from bringing children to the Penn State athletic facilities.)
I believe Joe Paterno was rightfully fired, not because he is a bad man. But because he found it easier to ignore red flags than to confront them. I commend the Board of trustees for making the statement that even a multi-million dollar football program is not worth the life of one child.
I once confronted a friend about a choice he’d made with his own children. It wasn’t abuse and he is truly a great dad. But it seemed to me that the kid had been put in a situation with potential (however slight) for harm, a situation that did not seem wise to me. We had a pretty heated exchange; in fact, the most heated exchange we’ve ever had. Being basically conflict avoidant, it was tremendously difficult for me to say anything. He told me it was none of my business. I replied that the safety of children was everyone’s business.
When I graduated from high school, our speaker reflected upon the “rights and responsibilities” that came with our diplomas. Part of the responsibilities of being an adult is that sometimes we have to do the hard things. We have to make the tough calls. We have to have the hard conversations that we’d rather not have. We have to ask the questions that we’d rather not hear the answers to. We have to be willing to risk friendships and reputations because those things are not as important as doing what we can to see that a child is not harmed.
I am both sorry and sad that Joe Paterno’s career has come to this kind of end. I am sorry and sad that in his eighties he is having to face the realization that he should have done more. But I am even sorrier that he did not use his considerable power and influence to stop a pedophile from continuing to abuse. People who are upset this morning with the firing are protesting that he is just the fall guy. But the reality is that with great power comes great responsibility. And sometimes, with great responsibility comes great consequences.