The Penn State Scandal: We Need to Be Open and Honest With Children and Ourselves When It Comes to Sexual Abuse


It’s not an easy conversation, and it was one that was overdue. We tend to think that children can’t handle these things. We preserve their innocence, and we think it too unspeakable. In doing so, we can let others teach different lessons instead. We often lay the seeds that allow sexual abuse to thrive behind closed doors and in whispers.

It is easy to demonize the leadership at Penn State, and think you would do differently. To tsk-tsk Mike McQueary for not doing enough, or to lambast Paterno as the face of the program. It’s easier for US to compartmentalize it as THEM — the morally bankrupt failures — out there in secluded Happy Valley. Penn State was a massive institutional failure, made up of individual ones. None of those individual ones are all that uncommon in these situations.

In a prior life, I worked with a child protection agency. Never dealt with anything remotely like this, but there were certainly plenty of abuse cases. In situations where someone knows the victim and the perpetrator, you know who they overwhelmingly support or enable?

The perpetrator.

People minimize, rationalize, make excuses, ignore evidence, and generally don’t want to believe sexual abuse occurred in their family or neighborhood. It’s not called the family secret for nothing. It’s not the epidemic that it is because people confront it and “do the right thing” at every opportunity when dealing with protection of children. Penn State was a large family, a large hierarchy, and Jerry Sandusky was the equivalent of Uncle Jerry, the dirty secret no one wanted to confront or deal with.

In an excellent piece by Wayne Drehs of ESPN on Mike McQueary, he quotes a former FBI expert on child abuse, who herself had to deal with being a whistleblower against a fellow employee, and struggled against the institution trying to protect its own. She doesn’t think Mike McQueary’s response to seeing a rape of a young child by a man he knew his entire life would be out of the ordinary, despite what most people think they would do.

"“You’re trying to comprehend something your brain can’t handle,” Turner said. “You can’t rationalize it. Compute it. Handle it. Most people turn around and walk away. And then they try to figure out, ‘Oh my God. What the hell did I just see?’ The people who say they would go in there and break it up? They’re wrong. Nine times out of 10, that’s just not how the human brain works.”"

Early this morning, Sarah Ganim of the Patriot-News posted a story that the Sandusky interview with Bob Costas has prompted others to come forward, one as far back as the 1970’s. People who have suppressed the memories have been emboldened finally, and are dealing with the trauma all over again, though many still fear whether they should go public. According to the story, “Some of those who talked to Shubin are afraid of retribution from Penn State-crazed fans, or being blamed — like one victim — for the downfall of Joe Paterno.”

That response, that dreadful response and fear of reprisal from others for hurting someone who actually isn’t the true victim, needs to end. It’s too typical, though. I have no doubt that there are victims out there from long ago, afraid to come forward. Part embarrassment, part fear of the response that people have to protect the things they love, no matter how misguided.

Sandusky didn’t become a pedophile in 1998. Sandusky is in defense denial mode, and may never talk, but I suspect that he himself may have been a victim turned perpetrator on a grand scale. Going through his book, when he was 12, his family moved into an upstairs apartment in the Brownson House, a community center where numerous people frequented (or the Bug House, as Sandusky referred to it, because of all “the ‘buggy’ people who ventured through its doors”).

It’s not comfortable to think that one of those people that ventured through may have perpetrated the same acts on a young boy back in Apple Pie, Two Fords in every drive, 1950’s Pennsylvania, because he is now the monster. It’s what makes the monster grow, our avoidance, our ignorance, our hiding behind the great lie. It’s what allows it to grow, and in this case to grow to unspeakable depths and horror. We can’t hide anymore.

I say all this not to minimize the role that every adult who had an opportunity in 1998, or 2000, or 2002, had to stop this. I believe Paterno needed to resign even if he met whatever bare legal requirement existed, and the failures at each level need to be pointed out and explored.

However, if we just think this is a Penn State and Paterno problem, that the world would have magically been a better place had any of us been there instead, then we’ve learned nothing. We need to examine why this can happen in football — the macho mentality, the fear of disclosing sex acts with an older male, the oversight of coaches with access and power over youth, the power that the internal “protect the team at all costs” attitude has to hide wrongdoing.

We also need to fight our own human instincts. Recognize them, not pretend we are flawless moral beings. We need to empower victims, let them know they are not alone. What happens to the least of us, happens to all us. Let them know that this is an institutional failure — not the institution in Penn State, but the human one. This is not their cross to bear alone for being a child who was not protected. It is on all of us.

[photo via Getty]