The airwaves have been deluged this past week with the child sexual abuse scandal that has erupted at Pennsylvania State University. I watched Chris Hayes’ new weekend talk show this morning on this issue, but rather than railing about the salacious details of the story, it was an intelligent discussion about the wider implications of the culture of protectiveness that sports programs enjoy in this country.
I should preface these comments by stating that the sexual abuse of the children by a coach at Penn State University is alleged and not yet proven in a court of law. That being said, it is also important to acknowledge that grand jury testimony has been made public, including eye-witness accounts, that leaves little doubt about the guilt of the individual in this case.
Large universities in this country make an immense amount of money on their sports programs. Protecting this revenue stream is apparently much more important to some than doing the “right thing”, whether it involves covering up pay-offs to athletes, altering grades for their stars, failure to censor rule-breaking behaviors by the student athletes, or now apparent sexual abuse by those who are entrusted to work with young men and boys in these settings. The discussion centered around the wider moral implications of putting the money before the welfare of our children.
In the case of Penn State, clearly the protection of their football program took precedence over that of the children who were involved. Instead of calling law enforcement when the abuse was discovered so many years ago, the damning information about the coach was passed up the chain of command to administrators with the end result being that nothing was done to stop the alleged abuser. He was allowed to continue working at the university and allowed to continue to oversee a charity that he established to work with disadvantaged youth, a convenient way of gaining access to his victims. There is no question that a cover-up existed at the highest levels in the school, either from a desire to protect the reputation of the school or from a misguided desire to protect the individual because of friendship.
There is also no question that college sports are important to these schools. Millions of dollars flow into the schools that provide scholarships and grand facilities for the students. Perhaps that is not a bad thing overall. What we are left to face is the moral failings of men who could have stopped this abuser a very long time ago. Why would someone place more importance on the “good name” of the school rather than on the safety of the children? It is being described as “institutional blindness”. I would call it “institutional and individual moral failure”. When head coaches and administrators cover up this kind of behavior by anyone on their staff, it cannot be called anything else.
The end result for Penn State and its administrators and coaches is to be determined in the courts. Obviously, the trial for the alleged offender will be front page news for a long time to come. But in trying to protect the school and the revenue, what these coaches and administrators have done is to hurt their school’s reputation much more severely than any disclosure would have ever done at the time. The legacy of a much-storied coach and sports program has been irrevocably damaged. The damage done not only includes those who were directly involved, most importantly the children, but the futures of the athletes in this program have also been tainted by those who failed so miserably. The long-term implications of shattered young lives, lost jobs, and lost opportunities for so many people cannot be measured. As we find out more details of the story, the circle of victims grows wider.
Last night, a victim of child sexual abuse appeared on a TV talk show. This brave young man has an established an organization to support victims and to raise awareness of this problem in our society. Although he is now grown, the anger that he still holds is apparent. His life has been irrevocably changed by a man that he trusted and respected. He expressed the fear that he had at the time, thinking that he was completely alone and frightened to face his abuser, thinking that he would not be believed. Not only was he violated physically. He had to deal with a deep sense of betrayal by those that he trusted to nurture and protect him from harm. Children are not able, either physically to stop the abuse, or psychologically equipped to deal with the feelings that must inevitably come from enduring an ordeal like sexual abuse.
This story should open up a much wider discussion in this country. We have seen so many chapters in the past years, involving some of the most trusted people in our society, the priests of our churches. The same institutional and individual moral failures were seen with the Catholic Church’s cover-up of so many cases, going back for many years. What we should discuss now is why there is hesitancy to report abuse of children to the proper law enforcement either by individuals or by institutions. We need to take a hard look at ourselves to see why the laws on the books requiring mandatory reporting of child abuse are not enforced. We should be honest about our hesitancy to “get involved”. We also need to look at how children can be sheltered and believed when they make a charge of sexual abuse. For instance, should a child be required to face his abuser in court? I can only imagine that this would be terrifying for a young child to be required to sit in a courtroom in close proximity to the person who abused him. The process of bringing a sexual predator to justice should not be as traumatic to the child as the assault itself.
I would suggest that we also need a in-depth examination of the causes of sexual abuse of children in our society as a whole. What possesses a grown man to go down this dark road of exploiting children for sexual gratification? What is it in our society that brings out this kind of aberrant behavior by so many? Are there more cases of child sexual exploitation, or is the media just bringing it to the forefront more often? The same kind of questions should be explored about sexual harassment of women, a subject that has also been flooding the airwaves recently with charges by a number of women against a presidential candidate.
There are no ready answers, and the mirror with which we must view ourselves and our culture is not necessarily kind. We may see things that we do not want to see. Nevertheless, we must look.
Today, the New York Times has published an article about the signs and symptoms of sexual abuse in children. I would encourage everyone who has contact with any children to read this article and familiarize yourself with these sometimes subtle indications that “something is wrong”. You may be able to save an innocent child from a lifetime of emotional pain that results from this scourge. When it comes to our precious children, we cannot be too vigilant!
- Why Boys Do Not Tell About Sexual Abuse (psychologytoday.com)
- Former California Senator Martha Escutia Calls For End To Tax Breaks For Nonprofits Harboring Pedophiles In Wake Of Penn State Sex Abuse Scandal (prweb.com)
- What Parents Can Learn From Penn State Scandal (yourmindyourbody.org)
- Penn State candlelight vigil to support sexual abuse victims (hazimiai.wordpress.com)