The fail of Penn State and society

College football fan or not, odds are you’ve heard about the sexual abuse scandal that has rocked Penn State over the last couple of weeks. In case you missed it, Jerry Sandusky, a 67 year-old former assistant football coach and founder of The Second Mile, originally a group home for at-risk boys and now a charity, was arrested and charged (after a three-year investigation) with 40 criminal counts for allegedly sexually abusing at least eight boys over a 15-year period.

In the fall-out since his arrest, Penn State athletic director Tim Curley and Senior Vice President for Finance and Business Gary Schultz have resigned and been criminally charged. Long-time head football coach Joe Paterno and university president Graham Spanier have been fired and assistant football coach Mike McQueary has been placed on administrative leave.

The abuse of the eight victims in this case dates back to the early 1990’s. It wasn’t until 1998, after an 11 year-old boy was dropped off at home with wet hair after showering with Sandusky, that the first police reports were filed. Sandusky admitted  to the boy’s mother later on that he had showered with her son (and with other boys) and promised never to do it again. The case was eventually closed and no criminal charges filed.

In 2000, a janitor caught Sandusky in the showers performing oral sex on another victim. He did nothing to stop the assault but immediately reported what he saw to other janitorial staff including the supervisor. The supervisor told the janitor who he should report to but the witnessing janitor was a temp worker and failed to make the report. The police were never contacted.

In 2002, McQueary, who was then a graduate assistant at Penn State, walked into the locker room and witnessed Sandusky raping an approximately 10-year old boy in the showers. McQueary did nothing to stop the attack but instead went home and told his father (McQueary later stated that when he left the locker room, the attack had been stopped.)

The next morning, McQueary reported the rape to Paterno who reported the rape to Curley. Later on in the month, McQueary was questioned by Curley and Schulz. McQueary was never questioned by anyone else. Curley later reported to him that Sandusky’s locker room keys were taken from him and that they had alerted the Second Mile. Not a single person contacted the police.

In 2008, yet another victim’s mother reports to her son’s school that he has been sexually assaulted by Sandusky. The school contacted the police department and Sandusky was subsequently barred from the school district. In 2009 an investigation was finally launched. It wasn’t until November 2011 that Sandusky was finally arrested. It took nearly 13 years after the first report for him to be stopped.

As a sexual assault victim’s advocate, mother, and simply as a human being, this story makes my blood boil! Besides the obvious outrage at Sandusky, the failure by several adults to stop a child molester was just as outrageous. I knew I wanted to publicly address this situation but I was struggling to know where to begin. Should I write about how child molesters seek out positions that give them easy access to kids? Do I write about how institutions are masters at protecting the institution and not the people hurt by it? Should I toss out some statistics like “93% of children that are sexually abused know their abuser?” Child safety tips? How to report a sexual assault? How society enables abusers? Or maybe I could talk about the devastating effects of childhood sexual abuse? The possibilities were endless! It took spending some time teaching first graders what to do if somebody tries to hurt them to make it a little clearer for me.

We teach our children to tell someone, to find somebody to believe them, to find an adult to trust if they are sexually abused. Therein lies the problem- as adults we fail-time and time again-to do the right thing for our children when it comes to sexual abuse and it’s aftermath. While Penn State is a failure of epic proportions by adults to do the right thing, in our own communities we fail our children in the same way every single day.

We fail our children when we refuse to believe them when they finally report abuse. We fail our children when we refuse to believe that our spouses, grandparents, brothers, uncles, neighbors, and friends could commit sexual crimes against our children. We fail our children when we make it so difficult for them after they do report abuse that they often times change their story so the adults in their life are no longer upset. We fail our children when they trust us to protect them from harm and we don’t. We fail our children when we don’t trust that nagging feeling in our gut when something just doesn’t seem right about a person or a situation. We fail our children-time and time again- because it’s easier to believe that childhood sexual abuse happens in communities other than our own.

And while it’s hard to believe that there are adults out there that harm our children in the most horrific of ways, it’s even more difficult to believe when the abuser is a person we may know and respect, even more so when it’s a person we may love. Regardless, as adults there is really not an excuse good enough for failing to report child sexual abuse, no matter who the abuser is. There really isn’t an excuse good enough for not believing our children.

All the players in the Penn State scandal failed to do the right thing for Sandusky’s victims. Sadly, but not unexpectedly, since the allegations have arisen more victims have come forward. Stories of sexual abuse by Sandusky are now dating back to the 1970’s. We can only speculate how many children Sandusky has abused over the years. We can only speculate how many victims could have been spared if somebody would have stepped up and done the right thing years ago. As a society we need to stop failing our children- their lives and well-being depend on it.

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