Preventing and Reporting Child Abuse: The Questions Raised by the Penn State Scandal

Last week, a Pennsylvania Grand Jury indicted former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky for sexually abusing eight boys over the course of a 15-year period. The indictment also charged two top university officials with perjury and failure to report what they knew about the allegations.  The indictment has kicked off a firestorm of media attention both in the sports world and the US at large. On November 9th, the Penn State Board of Trustees fired legendary football coach Joe Paterno and Penn State President Graham Spanier. Allegedly, a graduate assistant told Paterno that he observed Sandusky abusing one of the boys. Paterno reported this to Athletic Director Tim Curley although did not follow up later on the matter or alert legal authorities himself. The indictment stated that President Spanier was made aware of the incident reported to Paterno as well. 

In any particular abuse situation there is an abuser, a victim, and (almost always) bystanders. This is true in bullying, street violence, as well as child sexual abuse. One of the most important questions that the Penn State situation, and cases like it, raise is — what is it about the nature of intimate sexual violence that stops so many bystanders from taking action when they either have direct information that abuse has occurred or, more commonly, just an inkling that something might not be right. 

It is true that men like Mr. Sandusky can often be well-regarded, upstanding citizens, involved in the community, even loved as a role-model by many.  However, it is ALSO true, as has come out in the press, that numerous people had direct knowledge of, and even directly witnessed, Mr. Sandusky sexually abusing boys. Despite this knowledge, they were passive bystanders, not active ones. If any one of these adults took appropriate action to report this to the proper legal authorities, maybe the abuse would have ended with one or two boys rather than eight. Maybe the victims would have been given help and protection.  

While some adults in this situation had direct knowledge of the abuse, I’m guessing there are likely many others who had troubling gut feelings about Mr. Sandusky –family, neighbors, players, coaches, etc.  Many such people are now wracking their brains about what signs they might have missed, why didn’t they trust their gut, and, most importantly, what prevented them from coming forward. These are good and important questions. Even Joe Paterno, whose Penn State football team proudly extolled a reputation for being “squeaky clean” and whose motto was “success with honor,” could not see clear to act on his moral responsibility to protect current and future victims.  It is especially disturbing that those with direct knowledge could not muster the resolve to actively speak out.

However, for all of us, there is this critical question — WHAT prevents us from speaking out, not ignoring what we see, paying attention to these gut feelings, checking them out, talking with a friend or colleague about them, and ultimately taking action to alert the proper authorities?

I think there are complicated answers to this question. 

Much of it relates to our societal denial about the reality of child sexual abuse.  We SO want sex abuse to be about the creepy pervert, the stranger who abducts and molests our kids. Let’s just put them all on sex offender registries, attach GPS devices to their ankles and we’ll be okay. We DON’T want to admit that 90 percent of sex abuse is committed by people known by the victim and the family – our brothers, uncles, fathers, stepdads, and…yes…coaches.

If we do speak up, we are intruding on the privacy of the hallowed family –whether it be a family unit or the Penn State family.  Sometimes, we don’t know what signs to pay attention to in these men. Even if we do, we don’t want to get involved: “I told my supervisor. If they don’t act, it must not be that big a deal. Anyway, if anything happens, it’s on them, not me.”

We especially don’t want to get involved when there are powerful people and institutions involved. When those institutions have “squeaky clean” images to uphold, we don’t want to be responsible for tarnishing that image. If we do raise our concerns, we risk social rejection. We also need to have some comfort with our feelings related to the shrouded area of sexuality and the language of sex to get involved and speak up. If we speak up (as an adult bystander or a victim), it is HIGHLY likely that things will get worse in the short term although hopefully better in the long term. 

Many people, playing Monday morning quarterback, are outraged about the fact that bystanders didn’t speak up (and we should be outraged by this case), but this does NOT recognize the reality of the barriers listed above. Until we grapple as a society with these many barriers, we will make limited progress on prevention.

Child sexual abuse prevention, led by organizations such as Stop It Now!, seeks to answer exactly these questions  – how do we help adult bystanders recognize the signs of sexual abuse, talk with others about what they are seeing, and find the courage and words to speak up. Unlike Penn State, most often it is a wife speaking up about (or to) her husband whom she sees repeatedly coming out of their daughters’ bedroom in the middle of the night; a neighbor speaking up about (or to) a beloved neighbor who frequently has boys coming in and out of his house; an adult niece speaking up about (or to) a great uncle who always wants to play video games in the basement alone with a 10 year-old relative.

This is not an easy subject to raise when the abuser is the primary earner for the family; when he is well-loved, even by the son or daughter he is abusing; when he is the founder of organizations for vulnerable kids which do a lot of good; when speaking up means a crisis will ensue.

To prevent sexual abuse, we must ALL struggle with these questions. Perhaps the Penn State situation will move us a little closer to speaking up as ACTIVE  bystanders, not passive ones, looking out for the well-being of our children and those who cannot speak for themselves.

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  • crowepps

    Did any of these people who knew there were questions in 1998 alert his wife so that she would be aware she needed to take steps to protect the children in their home?  Or was this all a boy’s club secret?


    I have zero sympathy for any of the people who were ‘afraid for their jobs’.  They could have placed an anonymous call to the local ‘Report a Drug Dealer’ or ‘Report a Drunk Driver’ anonymously line and there would have been no chance it would get them fired.  Received by the police when they had prior knowledge of a problem, it would have been taken seriously.

  • rjw918

    >>Paterno reported this to Athletic Director Tim Curley although did not follow up later on the matter or alert legal authorities himself. 

    Sine this article was posted, it has been reported that Paterno doid report what he had been told to the campus police, a full power police force. 

    Too many people seem to be thinking that of the Grand Jury report doesn’t include such a fact, it never occurred
    What is allegeded to have happened to the children is despicable.   So is the cyber-lynching of Paterno.

    Yes, it is possible that Paterno is the cad that many people think he is, but at this point there are insufficient public facts to draw a reasonable conclusion. 

  • jennifer-starr

    I’m a bit puzzled as to why you keep using the word ‘cad’ here.   Tiger Woods was a cad–the fictional character Rhett Butler was a cad–the word I’d use to describe Mr. Paterno’s actions would be a bit different. He’s not the ony one at fault here but the fact that he didn’t follow up on this and report it directly  to the local (not the campus) police doesn’t really give me a lot of respect or sympathy for the man.  Was he afraid  of hurting Jerry Sandusky’s ‘feelings’?   Rocking the boat and messing up the football season?  The reason that a lot of abuse like this has been and will continue to be swept under the rug is because of people’s unwillingness to get involved ‘not my problem, I don’t want to ruin someone’s reputation, this will upset people, hurt their family’, etc.  There’s really no excuse for it and because of his inaction a lot of kids were hurt.  I’m sorry you feel that he’s being ‘cyber-lynched’, but he really has no one to blame but himself.  

  • kae-oz

    Though I am not an expert on this, I feel it is the lack of a guarantee their reporting the event will help anyone that prevents people from taking the risk to their lively hoods and social standing to report such things. The idea that instead of anyone believing them and jumping in to save possible future victims, that it would be turned around on them and they would lose everything and cause a lot of problems for themselves and those they care about can be very intimidating. I believe more people would be willing to take that risk if they had a strong belief that people would be helped by their actions and not just hurt. Including the victims. A person may not want to out someone as a victim without knowing that person wants and is able to deal with that kind of attention. If the accusation goes badly, they may fear revictimizing the person again. Such allegations often work out badly for victims and can be traumatizing.

    There is so little conversation on these things in the U.S. people are uncertain of how to go about helping in these situations. Not many people have the experience of going down to the police station to make such accusations and may be confused on how to go about that. There is also the fear that we might be wrong. It is not a light accusation to make to someone. Espcially someone intertwined with your life.

    I am not defending the man in any way. I really don’t know much about the details of this particular case. Just stating that we need more conversation about these situations in our society. I did not even know Stop It Now existed before this article, and I think everyone should be told of these types of resources.

  • steve-brown

    I think you make good points. I think often child victims ARE very afraid of disclosure on many levels — if the abuser is also someone close to them, they fear that person getting in trouble, being removed from the home, being blamed for breaking up the family, having other family members mad at them, etc. As I say in my article, these situations do usually get worse rather than better. At the same time, this cannot be reason for bystanders to do nothing and not speak up. This perpetuates the cycle of violence within a particular family and beyond. Most survivors (not all) say that, while they were terrified of disclosure, that is when things really started to turn in their life. I think it is worth the risk even though the victim/survivor and family can be angry at us (at the time) that we do.