On the surface, the Penn State scandal would seem to be another example of an institution of trust failing in its moral obligation to protect children. In fact, what the tragic web of human actions and inactions behind this outrage really shows us is that child sexual abuse is close to the perfect crime.
As the choruses of bloggers and essayists who have rushed to print in the last week have reminded us, perpetrators can rely on the majority of children to tell no one about their sexual abuse; most will carry the secret to their graves. Child molesters, especially trusted and respected adult authority figures like priests, coaches and teachers, gain control of their prey gradually rather than resorting to violent assault. They know how to target children with low self-esteem or poor parental support, and then spend weeks or months working their way into the child's life with gifts, praise, and outings. First physical touching, the stroke of a knee or a hug, becomes a normal part of the 'relationship', and when the more invasive forms of abuse begin, the child's fate is sealed.
The Penn State tragedy is also a powerful reminder that child molesters can also count on the inaction of adults -- and not just those in positions of authority. In my more than thirty years of representing child abuse victims, I have sadly seen that most people do exactly what the Pennsylvania Attorney General has accused two Penn State administrators of doing: either they avoid asking the difficult questions or they choose to look the other way. Countless times I have heard, 'I felt something was going on but I just didn't know what to do,' or 'it wasn't my place to say something.'
The scandal at Penn State also shows us that even when abuse is reported to civil authorities, the system cannot be relied upon for decisive action. According to the grand jury report in 1998, a mother reported to the University Police that Sandusky showered with her 11-year-old son. When confronted, Sandusky admitted he was wrong for showering and hugging the boy in the shower. The police told Sandusky not to shower with any child again, and took no further action. Case closed. Would a cop who catches a criminal trying to break into a bank tell him not to do it again and send him on his way?
Most Americans are outraged that Penn State turned a blind eye to a pattern of child sex crimes in its athletic program, and at the heart of their indignation is the righteous certainty that they themselves, along with their family, friends, neighbors and co-workers, would have handled things differently. They would have gone straight to the police. Immediate action would have been taken. But statistics suggest the exact opposite is true: in any one year, according to the National Center for Victims of Crime, about 90,000 cases of sexual abuse are reported, yet almost all experts agree that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused. The fact that such vast numbers of child sex crimes go unreported paints a disturbing picture of mass denial and apathy. Every day, all over America, people are choosing to look the other way when confronted with something suspicious between an adult and a child. When are we going to recognize this and begin to take responsibility?
While the national dialogue has rightly zeroed in on the alleged rape of a 10-year-old boy in a Penn State shower room, it is the stories of the other 7 victims which raise the more complex and disturbing questions about our collective responsibility. The grand jury report shows that from 1994 through 2008, Sandusky surrounded himself with young boys, not only inviting them to sleep at his house on numerous occasions (where several of them were allegedly molested), but purchasing most of them expensive gifts like golf clubs, a computer, dress clothes, a snow board and hockey equipment. At various times these young boys regularly accompanied him to Penn State football practices along with Philadelphia Eagles and college bowl games, and also to restaurants, family picnics, golf outings, tailgate parties, and even church. During all these years, is it really possible that absolutely no one in Sandusky's life -- which I am sure is filled with decent people -- had any inkling that Sandusky was up to something with all these young boys? With all these victims (and I believe more will come forward), no one in 14 years observed anything that made them the least bit uncomfortable? Really?
If it is true that not one of what must have been scores of people saw any red flags in Sandusky's dealings with children, then the sexual abuse crisis is dramatically worse even than I thought. Have we failed to learn anything from the sexual abuse scandals that have swept our country over the last decade? Has it not been made clear that individuals and institutions are universally too slow to act? How much more education do we need about such an obvious public health crisis? I thought we had finally gotten past the tragically mistaken idea that child sexual abuse is a crime committed only by slovenly strangers in filthy raincoats -- never by our respected friends and co-workers. It seems the Sandusky case may prove me wrong.
Paul Mones is a children's rights attorney who represents victims of sexual abuse throughout the nation. In 2010 he won the largest verdict for sexual abuse against the Boy Scouts of America. He lives in Portland, Oregon. (www.paulmones.com)