Editor’s Note- the last time we published about the Penn State Child Sexual Abuse Scandal, it didn’t seem as though it could get any uglier.
Now it did, with confirmation that Penn State paid settlements to victims of Jerry Sandusky starting in 1971. This means there is now 40 more years’ worth of guilt on the college’s shoulders, and the true number of Jerry Sandusky’s victims is likely much bigger than anyone had guessed.
In the last few weeks, two interesting stories have emerged from Penn State. One was Jerry Sandusky’s wife publically maintaining her husband’s innocence, and the other concerns coach Mike McQueary’s allegedly admitting he was sexually abused as a child.
Jerry Sandusky’s wife thinks he’s innocent. It is not easy to convict someone on a single count of child sexual abuse in this era. To convict on 45 counts is exponentially more difficult. The son Jerry and Dottie adopted together testified that he was abused- in proclaiming her husband’s innocence, she invalidated her son’s story. I think it is safe to say that for all intents and purposes, there is no way that, in this day and age, that could possibly happen if there wasn’t veracity to the victims’ stories.
Dottie argued that all these accusations came to light because the alleged victims wanted money. Working on statute of limitations (SOL) reform, I hear this all the time. First, it is significant to note that Jerry Sandusky was convicted in criminal court- where no money is awarded, and where the burden of proof is much higher. If money had been the only motivator, it would have been easier for the victims to only pursue their cases in civil court. I have never met a survivor who chose to seek justice in civil court over justice in criminal court, which tells me they’re not “in it for the money”. Seeing your abuser imprisoned means you know you have spared other children from sexual assault. I have it on good authority that the feeling that comes with that knowledge is amazing. When states pass sweeping SOL reform bills, there is a “civil look back” provision in them that allows survivors who were too old to seek justice under the old statute of limitations to sue their abuser in civil court- it’s unconstitutional to allow them to go back to criminal court. When large institutions are sued for staggering sums of money, it makes headlines. When an individual sues another individual with ordinary assets and ends up with a sum of money that might pay the bills for a month or two, it’s not news-worthy. But these suits protect the victim from being sued for libel if they publicly name their abuser, and they create official paperwork saying “this person molested a child”. That can limit an abuser’s further access to children, which is the main motivation I’ve seen when survivors take their abusers to court.
So Dottie is wrong about her husband’s victims. But this begs the larger question of how can anyone be so naïve? There is probably more than one answer to this, but one of the answers is that people who sexually abuse children don’t generally abuse them 24/7. They spend a lot of time and energy building a relationship with their victim, a process called “grooming”. This process is important to understand- it is largely responsible for why victims rarely report their victimization right after it happens. Abusers groom their family, they often groom the victim’s family, and they groom their community, too. They make sure it’s perceived as normal for them to be around children. They make sure they are perceived as a “nice guy” in the neighborhood. They are very public in the things they do that are good, and very private in their wrongdoings.
I’m sure Dottie had a lot at stake by staying married to her husband. She is of a generation that doesn’t take as kindly to divorce as younger generations. Her husband was something of a celebrity, especially in their home town. He may have been a wonderful husband to her- I’ve known sex offenders who are. Sex offenders can do wonderful things and can have positive relationships with people. And all the while, they remain a sex offender, someone who is eager to harm a child permanently and significantly if given the chance. This is a very hard concept for people to grasp, whether or not they’re survivors. One of the most cringe-worthy phrases to child sex abuse (CSA) educators is “it’s OK to be with so-and-so. He’s a nice guy and I trust him”. Most of us will go from cradle to grave without asking someone “do you experience sexual attraction when you look at children?” If someone is trying to gauge whether or not so-and-so is likely to sexually abuse a child, this is perhaps the least awkward question they’d need to ask, and they’d need to know how to interpret the answer. But most people simply assume someone displaying kindness, courtesy, and any characteristic they relate to cannot be someone who would sexually abuse a child. It’s always easier to believe what we want to believe than what we don’t want to believe, and it’s so much more desirable to believe your husband got framed by some greedy men.
I’ve never seen an interview with Dottie where she says whether or not she’s a CSA survivor herself. That sounds strange- most people assume that someone who was abused would do everything in their power to stop it. But 20% of the adult population has survived child sexual abuse, if that hurt universally became resolve, we would have fixed this problem a long time ago. There is a strong link between surviving CSA and ending up in an abusive relationship as an adult. Jerry Sandusky may have been a good husband- he may not have been. The fact that Dottie defends him, and the fact she never appeared publicly with visible bruises, doesn’t mean anything. The most crippling part of an abusive relationship, the part that makes them the hardest to leave, is the psychological control. It is possible she stayed with him and never reported suspicions to the police because she feared what would have happened if she did. It can take DV survivors years to frame their abuse as abuse. Child sexual abuse survivors often employ a similar trick. Minimizing their own pain becomes a coping strategy that gets them through a horrible situation they have no control over. But if they never address that pain and that coping mechanism, their tendency to deny pain can spill over into other parts of their life. Which can lead to situations where someone overlooks their partner’s sexual abuse of children.
Could it lead to a situation where a survivor witnesses a little boy being raped in the shower and walks away? Yes, and that’s a possible explanation for why Mike McQueary did what he did. It is important to note that Mike didn’t ignore what he saw- he did report it to someone in a position of authority, Joe Paterno. During Jerry Sandusky’s trial, Mike McQueary said something to the effect of “my brain couldn’t process what I saw [the little boy being raped]”. That’s very likely a biological truth- it’s likely that the brain of a survivor witnessing that abuse would use the same tricks it used to enable him to survive his own abuse.
I don’t want to have coffee with either Dottie Sandusky nor Mike McQueary. In both their stories, I hear too many echoes of my own abuse, and of those who facilitated it. I also understand the ripples and layers of damage that a sex offender can cause, not only to their own victim but to all those around them. To me, the most heartening thing about the Penn State debacle was that Joe Paterno became as reviled as Jerry Sandusky, even though he never abused a child himself. There is a growing awareness that child sexual abuse is so wrong that we need to not only punish abusers but punish those who facilitate it as well. But rather than blindly spewing vitriol about how horrible these people are, we can all do something to make ourselves less apathetic and ignorant. Read a little more on the subject, sign a petition to fix a broken law, ignite an intelligent conversation on the issue. None of us expect we’ll ever be in a situation where we could immediately and literally stop a child from being raped. All of us can do something to make this a world where child rape happens less often. And the more you learn about it, the more you think about it, the more likely you are to recognize each and every opportunity to help a child.
Executive Director, Stop Abuse Campaign
A survivor of incest, psychological abuse and a host of other childhood trauma, Melanie now uses her talents to prevent Adverse Childhood Experiences. Melanie has over a decade of legislative advocacy regarding children’s issues, and she has been published in newspapers, magazines and blogs all across the country.