Our reaction to sexual abuse


The case of Penn State University and Joe Paterno is sad for so many reasons. I work for a nonprofit agency, the mission of which is ending sexual abuse. I’m not an expert in the field, but I’ve absorbed enough information about abuse to understand that this is a very complex issue. Yet the media (and consequently our society) wants to see it as black and white. A child was abused and Joe Paterno is a bad person because he didn’t stop it. Outrage is easy after the fact. But thousands of children are abused everyday. It’s an epidemic, and society seems only to care when forced to confront it. We condemn Joe Paterno because he did not do more, and we think we’ve done all we need to because we’ve condemned him.

My guess is the very fury that has erupted in the wake of this story is part of the reason Paterno didn’t do more in the first place. No one wants to be associated with abuse in any way, so the easy thing is to convince yourself it isn’t happening. Joe Paterno’s response to abuse is a perfect microcosm of society as a whole. We don’t want to face the harsh facts, so we do only what we have to, but no more. Joe Paterno is being made a scapegoat, not just by the university, but by our entire society.

Could Joe Paterno have done more to stop Jerry Sandusky? Yes. But by reporting allegations to his superior at Penn State, he did do what should have been enough to stop Sandusky. That it wasn’t enough is a failure of the institution. By firing Joe Paterno, the university has successfully diverted attention from itself, making Paterno the target of scorn. Let’s not let them get away with this diversion.

I’m not defending Paterno. I’m not condemning him either. I was not in his shoes. I do not know what he knew. Perhaps more information will come out and we’ll learn that he had full knowledge that Sandusky was a sexual predator — in which case, condemn away. Paterno will fully deserve the disgrace. But until I know more, I don’t want to cleanse my conscience by piling more outrage on Joe Paterno.

What I fear is that this will pass, and we all will feel like we solved something by being so righteous in our condemnation of Paterno. Meanwhile, sexual abuse will continue in all of our communities. Joe Paterno should have taken stronger steps to learn what was happening, and then to stop it. But so should we all.

If you want to learn more about how you can help stop child sexual abuse, visit the Stop It Now web site. (Not the agency I’m affiliated with.)

2 thoughts on “Our reaction to sexual abuse

  1. In a sense what I hear you saying is that for sexual abuse to take place there has to be something wrong with the institution(s) in which it occurs. My field is the classical music industry and I know it happens there. How do we leave these behaviors behind? A day at a time.

    1. Thank you for the comment.

      I guess part of what I’m trying to say is that there are no easy answers. It feels to me that making Paterno the scapegoat is society’s (and Penn State University’s) way of insisting there are simple solutions, of deflecting attention from the ongoing problem of abuse.

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