When Matt Sandusky was only 8 years old, his adoptive father, former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky, began sexually abusing him -- a crime that he says went on for years. But because Matt had been considered a "problem child" before the Sandusky family took him in, and because Jerry Sandusky was so well-known and respected in his community, Matt says, the adults in his life completely missed or ignored the signs that he was being abused.
"People walked in on things that they thought might have been child sexual abuse, but they never reported it because of who he was," he told The Huffington Post in an interview. "Everybody in my life -- judges, probation officers, teachers, guidance counselors, doctors, therapists -- everybody kept pushing me towards the perpetrator, the person that was abusing me, saying that he was what I needed to get better. Nobody understood that he was making me worse. They wrote me off as a bad kid from a bad home that had no worth in society."
Sandusky kept quiet about the abuse for years, as his father had convinced him that the police were always waiting to take him away if he made a wrong move. But in 2012, when Jerry Sandusky was on trial for 54 counts of child sex abuse, Matt finally found the courage to come forward to police. He was among the victims with whom Penn State settled a civil suit.
Jerry Sandusky is now serving a life jail sentence for child sexual abuse, and Matt has dedicated his life to giving victims a voice. On Wednesday, he announced a new partnership between the sexual abuse awareness organization he founded, the Peaceful Hearts Foundation, and Darkness to Light, a national sexual abuse prevention nonprofit. The goal of the partnership is to raise the profile of child sexual abuse, encourage victims to come forward and train adults on how to spot abuse.
One important part of the strategy, Sandusky said, is to encourage Congress to pass a law requiring all schools to educate children from a young age about what sexual abuse is, so they can identify it and have the words to communicate it when it happens to them.
"I think it's important for schools to have mandated teaching to children, age-appropriate teachings, and I think every school in every state should have those programs in place," Sandusky said. "You have to talk to children early on and often, and teach them correct anatomy. Because these children don't have the language to understand sexuality, and then the perpetrators are teaching them what sex is and what's appropriate and what's not."
Sandusky said if someone had educated him as a child about sexual abuse and rape, it could have "drastically changed" his story.
"I never knew that what he was doing was wrong," he said. "I knew it made me very uncomfortable, and it felt so awkward. But the only thing I ever thought was that he was gay, because he was doing these things and we were both male."
Darkness to Light also trains adults -- particularly parents, teachers, and others who work with children -- on what signs to look for in victims and their perpetrators. According to the group, nearly 500,000 children born in the United States each year will be sexually abused before they turn 18, and nearly three-quarters of those children will keep their abuse a secret at least until after it has occurred.
Sandusky said reporting the abuse was difficult. "But the greatest thing I can tell a survivor is that once you have come forward, it is the single most empowering thing that you will ever do to take back control of your own life."
As he travels around the country giving speeches and talking about his own experiences as a survivor, Sandusky said other survivors, victims and their parents are constantly coming forward and telling him about their own experiences with abuse. He said he believes child molestation is far more common than people realize.
"Child sexual abuse is an epidemic," Sandusky said. "People don't get it. They think it's the old man in the van taking kids and molesting them, and that's not true. Ninety percent of the time a child is abused by someone they know, love and trust. And often that person, if not a family member, is someone the parents trust, and the perpetrator has groomed them to do that. We need to start paying attention to those people that seem too good to be true, because most of the time they are."
"We really need to open our eyes and start seeing this epidemic for what it is," he added. "It's destroying our society."