In the Wake of the Penn State Scandal – Thinking of Our Children

By way of fair warning, today’s post has references to a topic that is more difficult to read than most you’ve seen from me: the abuse of children at the hands of sexual predators. I write because I believe we must face it, and more importantly we must help our children face it.

Last night Maddie posted a story at Domestic Anarchy about talking to children about the horrifying story coming out of Penn State (you can read her post here). Afterward she suggested to me that I should post an article about how to choose a psychotherapist, for a child or for yourself, in the wake of traumatic events. I hesitated briefly because there is so much charge around this story, and it’s too easy to lose the ability to listen mindfully when emotions run this high. But then I realized it’s exactly the time, because sometimes it takes a shock to get us to think about the unthinkable.

If you haven’t been paying attention – it’s easier not to – former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky stands accused of multiple accounts of child sexual abuse spanning at least 15 years, and no one – the celebrated Joe Paterno included – did anything effective to stop him. The story is not remarkable for its content; frankly, it’s all too typical of how children become victims. A person, almost but not quite always a man, uses a position of power and influence to gain access to children in order to gratify urges that are, to the rest of us, utterly incomprehensible. Like rape, this isn’t about sex, it’s about power and manipulating someone who is defenseless.

Nor is the story remarkable for its context; the perpetrators of child sexual abuse are most often well-respected, outwardly upstanding and seemingly beneficent members of the community. To be sure, there are the seedy and the dingy outcasts who hang about parks and school yards waiting to lure their victims, but truthfully these are the easy ones to defend against. Know where your children are, teach them to trust their instincts about strangers who scare them, and be watchful in your neighborhoods, and you have done 90% of what it takes to defend against victimization by strangers. But most abusers are known to children, not strangers, and they are people the adults know and would never suspect.

There is another way in which this story is unremarkable. Nearly everyone stood by for a long time and did nothing, or at least nothing effective. The man with the best chance to put a stop to the abuse, now the celebrity center of this tragedy, JoePa reported what he was told to the Athletic Director. The AD in turn took some very weak steps to ensure that Sandusky’s access wouldn’t include the Penn State football facilities, but no one reported it to the police or took any other measures to protect future victims. Why not?

Perhaps because of the bystander effect (the desire to avoid “getting involved” -that’s a post for another day), perhaps to protect reputations (including the football program – really, at the expense of innocent children?) And lest you think that it’s unusual that nothing was done, read the 2nd comment on Maddie’s blog post. It’s easy to judge the players in this story, but the cold fact is that it happens all the time, just not usually so much in the public eye. 

And yet, as horrific as this story is, neither the abuse itself nor the failure to act are the worst of it.

Worse than the abuse is the weight a child carries from the way s/he internalizes it. Children are not simply “little adults,” and it’s important to remember that when it comes to helping them cope with the aftermath of abuse. Because the ultimate assault is on their sense of safety, the sense that “all is right with the world.” Innocence is the ultimate victim, and the loss of it is the ultimate tragedy.

As importantly, that same weight falls on the children who hear stories of abuse, even when they are not the victims.

What happened at Penn State should never happen again, but unless we do something to stop it, it will. What could be, and must become, remarkable about this event is that we use it as an opportunity to do something important for our children. We can face the challenge of ending abuse and making our children, and ourselves, safe. We can talk about it, face it, and vow never to stand silent.

There is something else we must do: we must try to understand our children’s experience of the world, and help them through it. One way, the first and most important way, is to talk with your children, as Maddie suggested or in whatever way works for you. In Monday’s post I’ll talk a bit more about this, and will address the issue of choosing a therapist for your child, in the event that talking isn’t enough.

Les Kertay, Awakened Moments

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  1. says


    Not enough people think this way.

    However, I don’t believe “bystander effect” is the right term for what happened in this situation. The adults in this case made a conscious choice to protect the financial cash cow that is Penn State. They were not immobilized by the fear of getting involved they were motivated to protect their livelihoods and an institution’s reputation without a moment’s thought to the many young lives at risk.

    I will agree that a lot of time is spent warning children about strangers when the dangers are much closer to home and sometimes in our homes, and there is never enough time invested in thinking about what we need to do to support children who have been victimized. Some of the articles I’ve read this week have been shocking because they shamelessly support the adults in this scandal and forget that the children who have been victimized will carry the pain of the abuse with them for the rest of there lives.

    As a society we need to wake up and start acting to protect our children.

    • says

      Thanks for your comments, and I agree that the story has evoked a surprising degree of support for adults who really should have known better and were clearly accountable. Perhaps I erred in listing the “bystander effect” in front of the protection of the football program, but I did mean to say that, at the least, protecting football at the expense of children was a big part of what happened and what must be the topic of conversation. Thanks for making the point even stronger.

  2. says

    Les, this is an excellent and timely post. People are so busy guarding against “Stranger Danger” that they forget that the most likely predator is the great guy (usually) that you know and trust.

    Predators are just that and they know how to stalk their prey,isolate their victim from the herd, and then if they are caught they know how to win everyone’s silence in the end.

    Pictures of this man show someone I would NEVER suspect of being a sexual predator. He looks so affable with that white hair and tanned face. The picture of heal and well-being.

    My heart is broken for those who were harmed by him and I know that their wounds will be carried for their rest of their lives.

    It’s important that people like yourself write on this topic. Thank you.

    • says

      Thanks, Chloe. I consider that high praise coming from you. And yes, I think part of what makes this so hard to take is that thought, if THIS man can do such heinous things, and if someone like JoePa doesn’t act to stop it, then what’s safe? So much pain, and so much work for us all to do.


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