The Underreported Side of the Penn State Scandal: Access and Ways to Protect and Heal

It’s a scandal that has rocked the nation.

The shattering of the wholesomeness of the Happy Valley, in which football reigns supreme and Joe “JoePa” Paterno has been little short of a god, is permanent and irrevocable.

The legendary coach who just celebrated winning more games than any other coach in college football history has been summarily fired, ending his 61-year “grand experiment” in utter disgrace.

His sin of omission: not having done more when he learned from then-graduate assistant Mike McQueary witnessing a naked Jerry Sandusky, Paterno’s former heir apparent, allegedly sodomizing a 10-year-old boy in the shower.

The damage extends far beyond Paterno to the institutional coverup of these actions.  President Graham Spanier has also been dismissed by the board of trustees, while top-ranking former administrators Tim Curley and Gary Schultz face criminal charges both for having committed perjury and for not having reported the abuse to the police after having learned about it.

Reactions have predictably been all over the place, with some students rioting to protest Paterno’s firing and far more expressing their solidarity with the victims the next day.   The trustees have been criticized for not having consulted the victims before taking action, while a group of former players plan to attend today’s game to demonstrate their loyalty to the institution and to the man who coached them.

Chicago Tribune columnist David Haugh wrote a widely-read piece in which he urged readers to have no pity for Paterno, but to focus instead on the victims whose lived have been so thoroughly damaged, while former NFL player Heath Evans, whose wife was abused as a child, has talked about the importance of speaking up.  A men’s health writer discussed Stanley Milgram’s famous and controversial experiment about obedience and the role of hierarchy in ensuring conformity among men.

Having reported on this issue for a number of years, I can say that child sexual abuse is one of the most emotionally topics I have ever covered.

While the discussion prompted the scandal about the issue is welcome, thus far one aspect has been missing in the blizzard of coverage that has engulfed print, television, radio and the web: the role of of access.

Being able to have regular and consistent contact with one’s victim is an absolutely essential element in the all too pervasive phenomenon.

Because of this, while it is true that there is an all too long list of authority figures like Sandusky, who allegedly abused boys in his Second Mile non-profit, the harder part to face is that the vast majority of abuse happens not from people outside the home, but from people within it.

We are talking family and friends.

Parents, siblings, aunts and uncles and trusted family friends.

In 2004 and 2005 I worked at South Shore Community News.

While there, I did a six-part series about child sex offenders.

For me, by far the most difficult piece to write was about a mother whose daughter had been abused by the man who had fathered her two other children.

The woman was in an unimaginably horrible position.

On the one hand, her daughter was wrecked, perhaps permanently-a condition that evoked shame, guilt and inexpressable rage within the mother.

She literally wanted to kill the man.

On the other hand, her sons missed and constantly asked for their father.

The man apparently had provided, if not formal child support, money here and there, doing things like buying shoes for the boys and paying for haircuts.

He also spent time with his sons, giving the mother a much-needed break.

At that point, she had neither respite nor money, just a devastated daughter, two confused and grieving boys and a nearly unbearable load to carry.

During our conversation the woman explained that the abuser had, like Sandusky, cultivated his victim over time, gradually expanding his advances until he raped her.

Again, access was pivotal in his insidious plan and actions.

The question that arises of course is what can be done about this, as adults of some sort will be able to be around children, especially in the home.

In a story I did last year for The Chicago Reporter, Dr. Carl Bell talked about strengthening families.  By this he meant having an extended network of people caring for children so that many eyes are watching them and are exchanging information about possible threats.

It’s far from perfect, and it is an option.  Bell explained that he had conceived and directed a program that had operated this way that had seen positive results.

It worked, he said, because it drew on the strengths that lie within communities, rather than treating them as objects to be scrutinized from outside.

The other hopeful note is that healing is possible.

Along with Doran “Bolo” Woods and Vincent Bolton, we made this film below about three young women, all of whom endured sexual abuse.

Two of them were abused by family members.

Yet all three of them found within themselves and through artistic expression the means to heal.

As you watch and listen, please think about the horrifying and enduring consequences of abuse, the central role access to the victims plays and the actions we can take to better protect our children.

They deserve no less.


3 responses to “The Underreported Side of the Penn State Scandal: Access and Ways to Protect and Heal

  1. I seem to have sent the comment, mid sentence. He was teaching young men to be aggressive, to fight in a certain way together, to help each other, so they won games. In the world of a successful athlete and football player, being vulnerable, being sodomized has no place. Even if his team did not win, they behaved as warriors for their school.

    That is an image. None of us are that perfect. In order to be warrior, a man has to work to ignore his vulnerability, the probability that he will be hurt, that he will hurt someone else. The more anyone works to do only one thing, like win football games, the more the person’s reality shrinks into everything being very simple.

    I know about a man who escaped one of the concentration camps in Germany before the war. He traveled to England holding onto the bottom of a train for hours. Having someone hold onto anything for hours is a kind of torture, if someone else makes you do it. It’s torture if you make yourself do it. He was going to England to tell them what was happening, what the real story was, not the image.

    He arrived in England. He told me. No-one believed him. He was helpless. He did what he had planned to do. He told the truth, a truth that was so horrible, none of the people could incorporate it in their reality. He had nothing else to do but kill himself.

    Joe Paterno is human. All humans are flawed. All of us have had difficulty taking in someone else’s reality at some time. I remember when my mother-in-law tried to talk to me about having cancer, asking me why me. I could not be with her at that moment. I saw that I was hurting her but I couldn’t. Every single time I want to judge someone else for not being with me, for not knowing how to talk to me, after I had a car accident that gave me a 1% chance of living, I remember that moment.

    We are in a century where we are moving from images to acknowledging how people behave, how governments run by people behave. All of us have shamed ourselves at one time or another. We live in a country founded with enormous dreams. But all of us are human. Our forefathers were human. Just because they wrote ALL MEN ARE CREATED EQUAL did not mean they weren’t slave owners. Yes, there were slave owners in the North as well as the South.

    There were people living in this continent when the settlers came. Our history with the Native Americans is as shameful as our history of 300 years of slavery. Every day, each of us imagines what our country is. We can honor the image of what we want to be, but all of us need to be aware that no person is an image. No person is perfect.

    We have talk shows that show other realities. Oprah and Dr. Phil are examples of people who listened to those who were absued, those who suffered. The more they work to educate all of us about what is actually happening, the more images of what actually happened are shown. Dr. Phil had a show in which a daughter took a video of her father beating her with a double belt almost 20 times. The video was shown again and again.

    Only by us seeing what has been kept secret, can we, as a country, become aware of what abuse is. Whether it’s a father enraged or a child sodomized by a coach, or priest, or member of the family, or stranger, it doesn’t matter. As long as someone is bigger and stronger than we are, that person can do whatever they want to us. If we imagine everyone is the image of their role, then we create a world of lies.

    If we imagine that we are the image of our role, the image of what others do to us, if we do not ask what we feel, if we do not let ourselves feel – everything, not just the joy of winning, then we harm ourselves and others. As long as we are not asking ourselves how am I like that person, what has that person done that I have done and am ashamed of, then we continue the lie of all of us being different.

    We make different choices. All of us choose not to look at parts of ourselves, especially the shamed, or the vulnerable, or the disappointed, or grieving parts of ourselves. We may choose to create an image of who we are just like Joe Paterno.

    To me the real question is, how do we create protectors, warriors, who keep themselves open to their feelings. Is it even possible for a person to remain open and be aggressive with their bodies and hurt another person?

    I don’t know the answer to this question? I do know that the world is dangerous. I know that we need protectors. We need young men to learn how to both be aggressive within limits, and to learn how to work as a team. I know that as each of us allows ourselves to know what we are afraid of inside of us, all of us will change.

  2. There was an editorial about Penn State:: Make amends through advocacy in the Globe today. Clearly the awareness of what actually happened is not in everyone. “Still, some aspects of Saturday’s game-the moments of silence, the mid-field prayer involving players from Penn State and visiting Nebraska, the shirts promoting awareness of child abuse- make clear that the Penn State community is looking for ways to move forward. Also encouraging was the $22,000 raised at the stadium gates for charities that seek to prevent abuse. It wasn’t an overwhelming sum, giving that more than 107,000 fans attended the game. But the money will surely go to good use, and this fundraising effort hints at a way forward for Penn State fans: by stepping up for child victims, especially sex-abuse victims, not as a one sorrow, but as a long-term charitable mission.”

    The difference in awareness of child abuse in the people who were there shows clearly in the amount they gave. All of us need to become aware of what we feel like, what we require of those who care for us, those in authority. Sex abuse is only a part of how those in authority use their position and power to use others. Parents are in a position of power over their children.

    If the parents have needs they haven’t dealt with, it is possible for them to ask their children to fill their needs. With the way we graduate from high school or college, we can think we have learned everything we need to learn. Except, learning about ourselves is a lifetime struggle. Being able to feel and let go of the shame we feel, or the terror, or the disappointment, or the confusion that those in power create in us by their behavior using us, often takes a lifetime for us to get beyond the reaction to the event.

    Shame is an emotion that can be let go of all by ourselves. We can put our shame in a garbage can. We can put the lid on it and never feel the shame again. Mostly, when we feel shame, we aren’t aware that we have that power. When we speak our truth, the truth of what happened, when we put what happened into words, then letting go of shame becomes easy. When we meet others filled with shame, we understand the shame is not ours.

    All of us can do something about what happens regularly to all those who are dependent, not just the children being sexually abused. We can open ourselves up to being aware of the danger of power. We can open ourselves up to being aware of how all of us will be dependent part of our lives, not just when we are born. In order to make the world safe for all of us, all the time, we have start to listen, start to become aware of what we do when we are in power.

    As we ask the Angels, or God, or the way you understand your higher power, to help us become aware, much more money will be donated. What happened at the Penn State game was a beginning. With all of us participating, things can change.

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