The much-anticipated report investigating Penn State’s response to the sexual horror unleashed on children in locker rooms and showers of the football team has found that the school’s leadership “failed to protect against a child sexual predator harming children for over a decade.”
The University continued to allow Sandusky access to facilities and more importantly children despite “red flags”. Fear of bad publicity, a desire to treat the pedophile Sandusky “humanely” because of his service to the University and the football program, and protecting the institution as well as the football program all took precedent over young boys who now, as adults, struggle mightily.
Penn State is now scrambling. Past Penn State football players have been brought to tears, while others who knew the victims, such as superstar LaVar Arrington, are horrified that they did not read all the signs correctly and respond.
Penn State is but one chapter in a rather long and sad book of sexual abuse of children. People are rightly outraged and horrified and want this to end. But how?
A number of weeks ago a woman who I respect more than most, Roxanne Jones, published a piece on CNN entitled “After Sandusky: What Have We Learned”. It’s a pretty good piece but makes the following comment on how to move forward:
A child who is abused needs to understand immediately that something is wrong and that her or she must tell somebody. If we don’t teach them, they have no chance at all against pedophiles.
I am hearing this quite a bit. We need to educate children to speak out. We need to teach them ways to speak out. And we need to make them aware that their bodies are theirs, that nobody has the right to touch them in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable or in a way that hurts them. This is of course true, education matters and we as a society could do much better to help children express their concerns to adults in a way that helps us fight pedophiles.
But if Sandusky’s trial taught us anything then I think it should be the recognition that educating children to speak out is important but hardly the problem. Children do in fact speak out – in verbal and non-verbal ways. Adults simply do not listen, or want to hear!
Talk to any psychologist who deals with traumatized, sexually abused children and the one thing that they repeat over and over again is that kids in fact did speak out. Abused children have approached parents, teachers, priests, doctors, family friends, coaches etc. and they have not been heard. Or worse, they have been discounted, as I will discuss a bit further below.
Children “speak out” in non-verbal ways as well that needs to be better understood and heard. When children experience trauma associated with sexual abuse they often do not have a verbal narrative for that experience. How can a 9-year old explain sodomy for instance? Many are so scared because they are still around the perpetrators. But they can’t “keep it in”, and so children often have physical symptoms, constipation, chronic health issues, behavioral acting out, dramatic decline in school performance, fights, withdrawal, and substance use to name but a few worrying signs. These are signs that adults need to recognize and explore more deeply, rather than simply labeling a child as “difficult”. Not every kid that acts out has been abused of course, and that is the point – it needs to be investigated to make sure the child is all right. Dramatic shifts in behavior should be explored because in many cases, especially with young children, they do not have the vocabulary to explain the trauma. They also feel afraid and do not know whom they can trust (especially if the perpetrator is within the family or a coach as is so often the case). As such, their trauma manifests in non-traditional ways.
Let me be clear – this is not easy. LaVar Arrington had no way of knowing what was happening based on what he has spoken about and written regarding the victim he knew from Penn State. He saw the victim as a troubled kid, thought he was getting help, and understandably did not connect the dots to sexual abuse. Almost nobody does. Only with hindsight does it make sense, only with hindsight do the dots connect.
The true horror of Penn State, and the Catholic Church scandals among others, is that some of the victims at Penn State did in fact speak out at the time when Sandusky was given free reign on campus. Others showed non-verbal signs that now make perfect and horrific sense. A few were actually seen being abused and not helped either at the moment of being seen or afterwards. I know some who were abused who told an adult of their nightmares. The adult’s response to the victim was always to suggest they are “imagining it”, or “misunderstood”, or whatever words are needed to shut the child up. Others were shown in various subtle or not-so-subtle ways that the topic would not be broached.
I am sadly one of those kids…
When the Sandusky story broke I took a chance and called a local radio station to share my personal views on what was unfolding in Pennsylvania. Dave Krieger listened, heard and reprinted my words – the male caller in the editorial here. My response to reading Krieger’s editorial was tearful as I felt finally heard by an adult, even though I am an adult of 47 years. That is how deep this scar is for unheard victims like myself. Not only were we not heard - we were forced to face the perpetrator every day. The psychological damage is significant, the risks immense and the danger that future family members are exposed to when unsupported victims of abuse have to learn to live with their abusers to survive (and thus it is “normalized”) is beyond unimaginable.
If we really want Sandusky to be a turning point on sexual abuse and pedophilia then we as adults need to take a hard look in the mirror. We need to look across society and recognize that we do not hear children who scream out very well. And the really hard truth that is the biggest barrier to moving forward is that adults do not hear because adults do not want to hear a child’s scream when it involves sexual abuse. Its too shocking, too horrifying, and too much to take in. If kids are not safe in their homes then where are they safe? The repercussions are simply too great to truly face head on. And that is the burden we face as a society – the realization that we have to ask some pretty hard questions and face some hard realities that until now have been far better swept under the carpet.
So adults shut their ears, tell victims that they are wrong, and force children to carry the entire burden of their trauma and abuse. Alone. Outrage flows when it becomes too obscene – when the line of victims becomes too significant to contain any longer. Sandusky was found guilty because he was charged with over 40 counts and had a line a mile long of survivors and victims. We pounce then.
But we do not pounce nearly as well when it’s a solitary victim, alone and confused, violated and unsure why nobody is listening.
Education matters as Roxanne Jones says. But we must go way beyond educating kids as she suggests because under Jones’ solution we still unreasonably place the entire burden on the victim to take charge. Not the bystanders. Not the abusers. A kid! Putting the burden of all of this on traumatized children allows us to continue to cover our ears and close our eyes, and is not good enough.
If we decide to listen in the future because Sandusky shook us to our core then Sandusky is in fact a turning point. Otherwise Sandusky is merely a blip.