Child sexual abuse is awful. Horrific. Heinous. And it happens every day to 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 5 boys around the country.
Even with 42 million survivors living in the U.S. today, many people do not believe it happens, and remain unaware of any personal connection to the issue. Thinking: “I don’t know anyone who has been a victim.” When, in fact, each one of us is almost guaranteed to know not only a survivor of child sexual abuse…but also, a perpetrator.
In speaking with Matt Sandusky, adopted son of Jerry, and one of his many victims, Matt observed the convenience in our refusal to believe anyone close to us could be a child predator. It’s too uncomfortable, too scary. It’s easier for us to believe the monsters are in the shadows — not walking among us, teaching our children, coaching our football teams, valued members of our communities.
For these individuals to continue to operate in our society and continue to groom and harm children, they must also groom adults. They must work to gain positions of trust and authority, filling a need and becoming an invaluable part of a system. That’s what Jerry Sandusky did: he became a winning, trusted, well-liked second-in-command. He used his power and authority to open a camp and access at-risk youth. And he also gained the trust and admiration of adults.
Joe Paterno was one of these adults. But instead of remaining in the dark, tricked by Sandusky’s charm and coaching prowess, he witnessed and/or was told of the horrific abuse being perpetrated by the assistant coach. And he said and did nothing.
Some are eager to let Paterno off the hook – saying he may not have known or realized the extent of what was going on. He may not have had all the facts.
It matters not.
Joe Paterno may very well not have had all the facts about Sandusky’s actions. He may not have known that the average child predator will offend against 117 children in his or her lifetime.
It matters not.
It was his responsibility to report any suspicion of wrongdoing. Instead, he chose to protect the reputation of the nationally recognized football program, and the legacy of his career on the field over the protection of children.
This is why, in Florida, we’ve passed the Protection of Vulnerable Persons law, which designates each and every person a mandated reporter of suspected abuse. It’s not our job to know for certain — not our job to investigate — but our job to report. To us, it’s just a call…but to a child, it could be everything.
I feel for Joe Paterno’s family; so many questions raised, left unanswered, about their beloved patriarch. But I would ask them to consider the other side, of the children who suffered in silence. Because being a ‘survivor’ of sexual abuse means more than just living through the ordeal…truesurviving comes after the abuser is gone, and you are forced to pick up the pieces.I was one of those children. I understand all too intimately the depression, anxiety, self-injurious behavior, eating disorders, substance abuse, night terrors and all of the other lasting scars we as survivors are forced to carry for the rest of our lives.
I would ask Mr. Paterno’s family to turn the conversation from what someone knew and when and instead to focus on a proactive opportunity to educate on best practices of reporting and what to do if faced with suspicion of abuse. Because, while we cannot change the past, we CAN shape the future and do more — do better — for our children.