Over the past week, our country has been horrified to learn about retired defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky’s alleged sexual abuse of over eight young boys he met through his charity for troubled boys in Pennsylvania. Many have also been outraged to hear that former Penn State football coach, Joe Paterno, failed to act aggressively when notified of at least one incident during which a graduate student observed Sandusky sexually abusing a ten-year-old boy in the showers of Penn State’s locker room.
Many have asked: How could anyone refuse to stand up against the abuse of a child?
Unfortunately, the Sandusky-Paterno saga is far too common in our culture. Research indicates that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be sexually victimized before adulthood. This means it’s highly likely that you know a child that has experienced some form of sexual abuse. It’s also very likely that you know an abuser. Perpetrators of child sexual abuse look and act like responsible, normal, caring and thoughtful people, just like you and me, just like Jerry Sandusky. Up to 30-40% of child sexual abuse victims are abused by a family member, and 50% are abused by someone outside the family whom they know and trust.
Those who sexually abuse children, like Sandusky, often have multiple victims, and the perpetrators of child sexual abuse often manipulate and prey upon the desires, immaturity and vulnerability of their victims. Sandusky, like so many, groomed his victims through establishing emotional closeness, providing expensive gifts and taking advantage of opportunities when he was alone, unsupervised with the very boys he was supposed to be helping.
It’s highly likely that many individuals—beyond just Paterno and the staff at Penn State—were aware of suspected abuse. Unfortunately, in our society, we often place the burden on the children to stand up against their abusers, but in the vast majority of cases of child sexual abuse, the child is confused, vulnerable, ashamed, embarrassed and afraid to come forward. Their abusers often manipulate and threaten them—building a fortress against any chance of confession.
And we, as adults, are often uncomfortable with taking real action in cases where we suspect abuse. Perhaps you were left with an uncomfortable feeling about a person that has easy access to a child. Perhaps you encountered a situation that didn’t seem quite right between a child and an adult. Maybe your church or youth-serving organization doesn’t have a child sex abuse prevention course or protocol in place, leaving children at risk. Maybe the family or person you suspect is part of a “good family” that’s very involved with your church, and you’re afraid of the ripple effects of reporting your suspicion. Or maybe a child has actually come to you and said some things that are frightening and disturbing, but you’re afraid of the impact the confrontation could have.
Remember, Jesus said that if anyone causes a child to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and be drowned in the sea. When you fail to act and pursue your suspicions, you may be potentially opening a child up to sin, disgrace and abuse. Taking a step to protect a child can be as simple as making sure your church or youth-serving organization has a protocol and abuse prevention training workshop (such as DarknesstoLight). Protecting a youth can mean just following up with them and asking them specific questions regarding whether someone has ever made them feel uncomfortable. Just by talking openly about what is appropriate and what is inappropriate sexually to your children can give them an important foundation to know when to come to you. And if you ever have reasonable suspicion of child sexual abuse, you are legally required to report the incident or facts. So, for your sake of the innocence of your children and other potential victims, talk with your supervisor or youth leader and get a professional counselor involved to help you take the appropriate legal steps needed to report the alleged abuse the way that best protects the child and his or her family. Don’t let your own personal discomfort or fear enable someone like Jerry Sandusky to expand their wake of child sexual abuse.