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Preventing and Reporting Child Abuse: The Questions Raised by the Penn State Scandal | RH Reality Check
Posted 11/16/2011

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.


Steve Brown, Psy.D.
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