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.