William Lynn and Jerry Sandusky: What we've learned

Posted: June 28, 2012

The convictions last week of Penn State's Jerry Sandusky and the Philadelphia Archdiocese's Msgr. William Lynn affirmed the brave disclosures of victims whose embarrassment turned to empowerment. But the cases were also about the rest of us, unmasking deep contradictions in our attitudes about child sexual abuse.

Like Mike McQueary happening on the scene in the campus locker room, many of us are queasy and ambivalent about the victimization of boys or men. Laws against rape began as property protections, treating wives and daughters as chattel not to be spoiled, and did not consider men. It was only this year that the federal definition of rape was revised to include non-vaginal penetration, after a campaign led by Philadelphia's Women's Law Project. We remain confused and confined by history on the subject.

The recent cases also reminded us that, whatever their gender, victims of sexual assault are often doubted. We often seem to wonder whether they are complicit, inviting the relationship and contributing to the crime. Victims of sexual assault sense our societal uncertainty. One Penn State victim explained his long silence by saying, "No one would believe me."

The common element of adults failing to protect children in both the Penn State and the Catholic Church cases is coldly revealing. Institutional complicity was apparently rampant throughout and up to the highest levels of the church. Lawyers were consulted, victims were paid off, and lists of abusers were destroyed. With hundreds of confirmed perpetrators in dozens of cities across America, in Ireland, and perhaps elsewhere, thousands of adults must have known and failed to act. A mystery, as the pope recently put it? Hardly.

Sexual abuse requires complicity. Joe Paterno and several Penn State administrators each took their turn at denial. Dottie Sandusky also comes to mind — faithful to her husband, perhaps alone with her fears and doubts.

Feelings of loyalty to an institution, a family, or a person, as well as feelings of indifference and isolation, can keep us from doing what's right in these cases, thinking, "It's not my job" or "Someone else will deal with it." When child abuse is not exposed, more and more children become victims. Some of us have a legal mandate to report suspected abuse, but we all have a moral duty.

More than three-quarters of child sexual abuse is intrafamilial — much closer to home than we care to know. It happens in families that can't imagine it. In many cases, we choose not to. It remains hidden for months or years as the abuse continues, signs missed, secrets not revealed: Not us. Not here.

Finally, these cases tell us what kids need: Someone to trust with their challenges and secrets; someone who feels responsible for their safety and well-being. Several of the Penn State victims were involved with the courts and the child-welfare system. Whom might they have told?

The Sandusky prosecution happened because a couple of mothers listened to and believed their children, and then stood by them through the gut-wrenching process we all witnessed. The best way to protect children is to ensure that they are all connected to adults who will listen to and speak up for them.

Frank P. Cervone is executive director of the Support Center for Child Advocates. He can be reached at fcervone@advokid.org.

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