Imagine, for a moment, you are like I was 30 years ago: 12 years old, naive and getting special attention from an adult who is revered by your community. Your Scoutmaster. The guy who’s supposed to have your back.
Imagine the fear and embarrassment you might feel the first time he tries to touch your penis. When you tell him to stop, he threatens to kick you out of your circle of friends, your Boy Scout troop. He threatens to tell your friends that you wanted him to touch you. Then imagine seeing all the adults around you fawning over your abuser because he is “such a great guy.” Do you think for a moment you would speak up and tell people that this great guy is abusing you?
Imagine how you might feel when you get a bit older, perhaps are gaining the courage to find a way to end the abuse, and your abuser grabs you by the throat, threatens to kill you if you tell anybody, then pushes you to your knees to humiliate you again. As an adult, I can look back and see how unlikely it was that my abuser would have killed me, but when you’re 16 and the air is being squeezed out of you, you believe it.
Over the past week, as the Penn State sexual abuse scandal has stirred a national conversation about morality and guilt and cowardice—about “the right thing to do”—I’m reminded why so many of us victims don’t come forward and find a way to end the torture, why child sexual abuse continues to fester in our society. Joe Paterno may have “met his legal obligation” by reporting his longtime friend and colleague Jerry Sandusky’s behavior to his superiors, but what about Joe’s basic moral obligation to protect kids from unimaginable physical and mental pain? And what of Mike McQueary, who allegedly witnessed Sandusky’s abuse firsthand, and did nothing other than tell Paterno what he saw?
Too often, adults who are trusted to protect the well-being of children don’t care to make unpopular decisions. Yet if we’re ever going to curb child sexual abuse in this country, those adults who know—or suspect—something sinister is happening to the kids in their community must be held accountable. Beyond getting booted from his perch as king of State College, beyond having his name forever tarnished, if Paterno indeed knew about the alleged sexual abuse, I believe he should be prosecuted. That he should rot in jail with Sandusky.
I think back to the sexual abuse that I endured for nearly four years, until I was 16, and the people who knew, or should have known, that my scoutmaster—who towered over me at six feet, 200 pounds—was abusing me and other boys. Prior to the scoutmaster executing his plan to molest me, he tried abusing another boy, I later learned. The boy’s parents told those seemingly in power, a priest and teacher in our southern California neighborhood, that the scoutmaster had acted inappropriately toward their son. Yet they rallied around the scoutmaster because he was charismatic and well liked. Rather than removing him, they removed the boy from our troop and didn’t inform other parents of the abuse allegations. Like my scoutmaster, Jerry Sandusky, if he’s proven guilty, was given a pass, and he was able to continue gaining access to other victims.
I remember one of many instances vividly in which my scoutmaster abused me on a camping trip. As with every excursion, there were a couple of other adults supervising us at Circle X camp ground, near Malibu. On this occasion, the scoutmaster asked me to sleep in his tent. Didn’t the other adults on the camping trip find that odd? Why is a 40-year-old man sharing a tent with a 12-year-old boy? As I learned many years later, the other adults did find the sleeping arrangement strange. And yet, they did nothing to step in and say, “You know, perhaps that isn’t a good idea; let Pat go sleep with the other kids.” There I was, surrounded by reasonable adults, with nobody jumping in to protect me. At the time, I was sure they must have suspected something, but no one spoke up.
Think about how it might feel to have every bit of self-esteem and self-confidence ripped away from you, to be torn down from a person to a piece of meat. Why do you think so many victims of sexual abuse attempt or commit suicide, or abuse drugs or alcohol? We want to escape the pain, fear, and despair that we can’t seem to ever completely shed. My abuser never spent a day in jail; I wasn’t strong enough to speak up, and by the time I did, the statute of limitations had passed. I grieve for Sandusky’s victims, if he’s indeed guilty, and breathe a heavy sigh of relief at his arrest.
I also grieve for the victims’ families, and their families yet to be born. For many of us, abuse impacts every friendship, every relationship and every job we hold. Abuse may make intimate relationships difficult, which can take a toll on a marriage. That in turn may make life more difficult for victims’ children, and in turn impact the way these children view the world. The ripple effect of Sandusky’s alleged crimes, and Paterno’s alleged blind eye, may continue for generations.
I am amazed and sickened, but not surprised, at the support for Paterno. People seem to care more about the fact that he coached a team for X years and scored Y number of wins. Who cares if a few boys had their lives ruined because he didn’t have enough character to say “Jerry, sit down. I heard you had some type of sexual encounter with a child in our showers. The police are on their way, and I will testify about what I have been told. I hope you rot in prison.”
That is what he should have done. Instead, he “met his legal obligation” and kept winning football games. Because isn’t that what’s important?