Commentary Violence

What the Sandusky Case Reveals: To Keep Kids Safe, Adults Must Embrace a Complex Reality

Deborah Donovan Rice

We have an unprecedented opening to use the Penn State sexual abuse case’s stunning lessons about ignorance, self-interest, and responsibility to examine widespread, false assumptions about child sexual abuse and how to prevent it. 

Cross-posted with permission from Stop It Now!

The prison term handed down yesterday to former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky—despite his claims of innocence and conspiracy—will effectively keep him locked away for the rest of his life. And it puts the rest of us at a collective crossroads in our own lives.

The sentence by Judge Cleland has received a near-universal endorsement from anyone familiar with the sordid details of Sandusky’s sexual abuse of at least ten boys over a 15-year period. Sandusky was convicted of 45 counts of sexual abuse against the boys, who had come under his influence while he served as a Penn State coach and as the founder of Second Mile, a program for at-risk youth.

Sandusky’s charitable works, his professions of innocence, and his goofy grin have revealed him to be a complex archetype and an easily demonized caricature of a predatory sexual manipulator. These two images respectively offer a great opportunity and a significant danger for educating adults about how to prevent future sexual abuse of children.

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And so, we must choose.

We have an unprecedented opening to use this case’s stunning lessons about ignorance, self-interest, and responsibility to closely examine widespread, false assumptions about the dynamics of child sexual abuse and how to prevent it. These assumptions make us all susceptible to becoming silent bystanders who, like many in Sandusky’s midst, fail to protect vulnerable children due to self-protective confusion, fear, or misunderstanding.

Or we can seek reassurance in the caricature and congratulate ourselves for putting away a man whom many equate with evil. We can punish the callous individuals and institutions we believe should have stopped Sandusky. We can consider our duty done. We can convince ourselves that “they” were the problem, and “we” would have done better. That’s the danger of this scenario.

Let’s be clear. Almost all adults are convinced they would speak up and intervene if they became aware of a child at risk of being sexually abused. But research and the experience of many survivors of sexual abuse demonstrate that more often than not, adults don’t speak up.

Why? Because we all want to view people that we know as “good” and to believe naively that we’ll recognize the “bad” ones.

One of the greatest barriers to preventing child sexual abuse is this either-or-thinking. This thinking held up Jerry Sandusky as a widely admired savior of kids and has now turned him into the bogeyman. When any of us has to choose between two extremes of saint or devil, we’re generally reluctant to re-categorize someone we respect into the negative category without absolute proof. But research shows that most people who sexually abuse children are complicated individuals with good qualities as well as a horribly destructive problem. They are not solely manipulative monsters.

To stay safe, kids need the adults in their lives to embrace that complex reality.

Only then do adults realize that it’s possible to start challenging behaviors that confuse children about what’s okay and what isn’t. That’s real prevention.

Children need adults in their lives who’ve educated themselves about warning sign behaviors and situations that may indicate an increased risk of abuse.

Children need adults who are knowledgeable about healthy sexual development and age-appropriate sexual behavior. Children need the adults in their families, programs, schools, and faith communities to speak up—and to follow up.

Showering alone with a young boy—that’s a warning sign.

Sharing a bedroom alone on a trip—that’s a warning sign.

Gifts and favors, special rules, secrets—they’re all warning signs.

Penn State coaches, administrators, and Second-Mile officials didn’t need to determine that Sandusky had bad intentions or an evil personality to take decisive action. They needed only to recognize that he was violating good, interpersonal boundariesi. Whatever his intentions, he was setting dangerous precedents. Those are the warning signs that adults can learn to recognize and use to prevent abuse— before it happens.

As satisfying as Sandusky’s long sentence may feel, preventing abuse will always have a much greater positive impact on our children, families, and communities than punishment will after the fact.

At the end of the day, that’s our choice.

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