Penn State's response to child sexual abuse: What about the victims?
Nov 11, 2011
by Lisa Rea
As the story comes out in more detail about the alleged sexual abuse of children by Jerry Sandusky, former assistant football coach at Penn State, the coverage of the story seems to be more about the actions of veteran coach Joe Paterno--his resignation or the university's decision to fire him.
That's not surprising given his long winning record as a coach and Penn State's reputation in the college football world. However, as a restorative justice expert and a practitioner who works with victims of violent crime, my concern turns to the victims. As this New York Times story tells there are some eight boys who have been abused over a 15-year period of time according to Pennsylvania Attorney General Linda Kelly. Since this story broke in recent days the focus has been on the following: 1) who knew what when, 2) when was coach Joe Paterno told, 3) how many others on staff at Penn State knew, 4) what level of detail was shared with university staff by the individual who first reported the alleged sexual abuse, and 5) did anyone go to the police with the information of possible sexual abuse against children?
But who is asking about the children abused some 15 year ago? Who is shocked by the sexual abuse of a football coach from the perspective of the victims abused who are now much older than children? Who speaks for them? Our interest in this news story seems to more about watching a college football icon fall from grace and resign or get fired than to see sexual abuse against children as anathema in our society wherever it is found. Sexual abuse of children is after all a crime.
As some have started, including the New York Times, the similarity between this alleged sexual abuse at Penn State and the sexual abuse cases in the Catholic Church first erupting in the U.S. in 2001 is obvious and worrisome. Often true in so many clergy abuse cases in the Catholic Church we have learned that the actions of the abusers were hidden from authorities and worse the abusers have often been moved from church parish to parish once Catholic church officials learned of the behavior. This does not seem to be the case with Penn State's Jerry Sandusky but far too many knew that possible sexual abuse had occurred for many years against children yet no one stopped it. No one seemed to follow up once the abuse was discovered and reported inside the university. In both cases, no one went to the police.
As we know with the Catholic Church there is no acknowledgement by the Vatican that law enforcement has any power or authority whatsoever over the actions of the church and its priests no matter what they are doing. The Catholic Church is sovereign---we are told. Maybe Penn State considered itself to be sovereign as well regardless of possible criminal actions taken by a former assistant football coach.
The effect these cases should have on us as we learn more is to be very concerned and, I hope, angry. Sexual abuse committed against children, or adults, is horrific. Not punishing these acts is worse. In the case of Penn State please don't let this be all about Coach Joe Paterno and his record as a winning football coach. I was encouraged to see that the Attorney General of Pennsylvania investigated this case against Sandusky. Attorney General Linda Kelly was courageous to go after the abuse especially at Penn State.
What is needed now is to confirm the guilt of the abuser and, if proven, seek a criminal conviction against Sandusky. As in the hundreds of cases of abuse at the hands of Catholic clergy, these cases are criminal and convictions should be sought in each case worldwide. There should be no statute of limitations. Those who enabled the abuse whether at Penn State or inside the Catholic Church should be held accountable under law. Someone should be asking what about the victims. Restorative justice can apply here in this case with Penn State, as I have always believed it could apply to every case of clergy abuse of children wherever that abuse has taken place.
That does not mean a slap on the wrist or the resignation, or firing, of a beloved football coach. The application of restorative justice means accountability and it means responding to the needs of the victims now---even 15 years later.