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Of Trees and the Forest: The Penn State Sexual Abuse Scandal

Updated on November 15, 2011

There is no question that the sexual abuse scandal that was exposed last week at Penn State University which, in the immediate, resulted in the summary firing of both the college’s president and highly esteemed head football coach was a disquietingly horrendous tragedy.

But horrific and incredulous as it seems, it is crucial to understand that this could predictably have happened in many locales across the country.

Focusing exclusively on the titillating details of the grossly irreverent acts of the perpetrator and the improbable actions of the other larger-than-life personalities involved, could rob us, as a society, of the incredible opportunity it presents for reasoned, concerted preventative action.

Beyond the human lapses in judgment, what happened at Penn State lays bare a number of critical gaps in our child protective service delivery systems especially as they pertain to the mandatory reporting of child abuse and neglect by individuals whose official responsibilities cause them to be in routine, continuing contact with children.

Therefore, the scandal must be appreciated as principally indicative of an incontestable failure of existing child welfare statutes not just in Pennsylvania but the nation at large.

From the general news reporting and other detailed disclosures from a grand jury report, what’s known at this point is that:

· Between 1994 and 2009, former Assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky engaged in a pattern of predatory sexual assault of eight (possibly more) immature boys; some as young as 10 years old.

· Sandusky groomed the boys by making them feel special with gifts/offers—inviting them to accompany him to places/events, personally picking them up in his vehicle, letting them work out at the school’s facility, spending time with him at his home, etc.

· Over time, the abuse progressed from horseplay, touching, showering together, soap fights, back rubs, naked bear hugs to rape.

· An investigation in 1998 involving the Penn State University Police, the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare and the District Attorney's office, initiated after one of Sandusky’s victim’s mother confronted him upon learning that he had hugged her son from the back while naked in a shower, was quickly and quietly closed. Although law enforcement officials actually overhead Sandusky admitting to what was alleged, he was simply instructed not to shower with children anymore. The lead police detective was instructed by the campus police director to close the investigation; the district attorney saw no justification for bringing criminal charges against Sandusky; the university’s chief legal counsel who was also the attorney for Sandusky’s charity (Second Mile) was made aware of this investigation but took no action.

· Mike QcQueary, a graduate assistant coach, informed the Penn State head coach, Joe Paterno, that in 2002, he had seen Sandusky raping a 10-year-old boy in the locker room shower of the school’s facility. Paterno subsequently shared this information with his boss, the Athletic Director, Tim Curley.

· The information was, in quick succession, relayed to the Senior Vice President for Finance & Business, Gary Schultz, who oversaw the University Police and personally knew of the earlier probe against Sandusky in 1998, and the University President, Graham Spanier.

· Nobody in Penn State University’s chain of command took action to report what McQueary witnessed to law enforcement.

It is not hard to see that blinded by a host of myopic, self-serving personal and institutional but unquestionably socially destructive considerations, practically everyone involved colluded to maintain the code of silence that directly allowed Sandusky unfettered access to his unsuspecting young victims.

Regarding culpability, as already indicated, what transpired certainly goes beyond personal errors in judgment---it was a catastrophic institutional failure on the part of Penn State University.

Had Sandusky been an ordinary citizen, it is highly likely that criminal charges would have been brought against him back in 1998 when he not only admitted to showering with one of his victims but actually confessed to having grabbed the boy from the back while they were both unclothe.

Were it not for who he was and what he represented, I would wager that everyone involved, from McQueary to Spanier would probably have personally intervened on the spot to stop the rape and/or taken action as appropriate to haul Sandusky off to jail in 2002.

But no; the decision was made every step of the way to ignore the interest of the child victims and protect the powerful in the most egregious, unimaginable way.

Looking back, although the involvement of the police in 1998 proved insufficient to force the needed accountability for Sandusky’s vile acts, given that rape is obviously a more heinous crime than showering with children, would the outcome perhaps have been different if the individuals involved with McQueary were required by law to report the sexual assault to law enforcement?

Practically all 50 states, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, have statutory designations of professions that are required by law to report all observations or disclosures of child abuse.

Generally speaking, these mandated reporter statutes become binding once there is “reasonable cause to suspect, on the basis of the reporter’s medical, professional or other training and experience, that a child under the care, supervision, guidance or training of that person or of an agency, institution, organization or other entity with which that person is affiliated is a victim of child abuse, including child abuse by an individual.”

In most jurisdictions, although the traditionally covered professions include social workers, child care providers, teachers/other school personnel, law enforcement officers, physicians/other health-care workers, medical examiners/coroners and mental health professionals, at least 26 states have widened the net to include members of the clergy.

Reflecting on what happened in Sandusky’s case, shouldn’t coaches and other college officials be mandated to report child abuse? And just to mention a few other job clusters, how about boys scouts troop leaders, camp officials/counselors, Sunday school/bible study leaders at churches/other religious institutions and the staffers of a host of other charitable/civic children’s organizations?

We must resist the temptation to see endangered or fading trees but not the forest itself. As we seek justice for the victims and accountability for Sandusky, all of the other involved individuals and Penn State, it is my hope that we would in the most pro-active and redemptive way plug the holes in our child protective service statutes that allow people to use their official capacities to subjugate or supplant the safety of our children for money, institutional glory and prestige, personal reputation or career advancement.


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    • suzettenaples profile image

      Suzette Walker 5 years ago from Taos, NM

      Great Hub! You make very powerful reasoning, statements and words. I am a retired teacher so I know the procedures required for reporting any kind of abuse. Even if we SUSPECT abuse, we must report it. So, there is no wiggle room for Joe Paterno as far as I am concerned. This is a definite right and wrong situation and no gray areas.

      I see you are from Columbus, OH. I am originally from Akron. I was so saddened, too, by the scandal at Ohio State. It was disappointing to see Jim Tressel also fall from grace. By the way, these two scandal schools play this Saturday at "the shoe". Should be an interesting game. I will watch it, even though I shouldn't but I feel badly for the two teams of players.