Meadville Tribune

Opinion

January 4, 2012

May scandals bring help, hope

MEADVILLE — In my capacity as executive director for Women’s Services, various people have asked me if we have an official position regarding the recent allegations of child sexual abuse at Penn State University. Of course we do. Our official position is “outrage.”

We are outraged by the allegations of decades-long sexual abuse of children by a trusted and prominent member of the Penn State football program. We are outraged whenever any person rapes children. We are outraged whenever any adult witnesses a child being raped and does not call the police. We are outraged whenever adults in their professional capacities respond passively to their legal mandate to report suspected incidences of child sexual abuse. We are outraged by the alleged lack of basic human protections afforded these young innocents at Penn State University and The Second Mile organization. And we are outraged by the suggestion that what is alleged to have happened at Penn State is a “sex scandal.”

We are outraged because the term “sex scandal” has a salacious connotation that completely mischaracterizes the severity and nature of the crimes allegedly perpetrated by Jerry Sandusky. These are not crimes of adultery, fornication or sexual promiscuity. This is about rape, child rape. It’s about the sanctity of mind, body and soul. Child sexual abuse, after all, is a violation of trust and power and the consequences are far-reaching and devastating.

Several studies have documented that people with child sexual abuse histories experience higher rates of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance abuse disorders, suicidal tendencies and chronic illness such as heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes than people who were not abused. We are outraged that any attempt to define these alleged crimes as anything less than the rape and sexual assault of a child is even considered.

We are outraged that the interests and reputation of a university, its coaches, and its storied football program are placed above the interests of children. We are outraged that Penn State students would riot and destroy private property in response to the firing of its head football coach. We are outraged to learn that one of Jerry Sandusky’s alleged victims is blamed for the sacking of Penn State’s head coach and bullied to the extent that he could not remain safely in school. We are outraged whenever blame is affixed to victims of sexual assault. Victims of such heinous crimes do nothing to warrant sexual assault. They deserve nothing less than our compassion and support. Subsequently, we will be outraged if the perpetrators of this reported bullying at Victim 1’s high school are not identified and held accountable by school officials and parents.

We are outraged that any child is sexually harmed and assaulted by a trusted coach but sadly, we are not surprised. Sports provide cover to those who would prey on kids, and the evidence of this fact is overwhelming. If you are not convinced, Google “sexual abuse in sports” and see how many hits you get. The stories of kids being sexually assaulted by coaches have been around for a long, long time and it’s not going away anytime soon. The public should brace itself for many more stories like the one at Penn State (and now Syracuse University) to surface in the months and years to come.

However, we are equally outraged by a society that routinely overlooks child sexual abuse until it occurs in connection with a prominent sports program. Research shows that one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused before they reach the age of 18. Please pause and consider these numbers before reading any further. And, when you consider the implications of this alarming statistic, please note that child sexual abuse is preventable. It persists because we as a society tolerate it. Consider all of the cases of child sexual assault involving clergymen, pop stars, school teachers and congressmen. Then consider how we continue to uphold individuals and institutions that fail to protect children. We are outraged that child rape does not receive the attention and outrage from our culture that it rightfully deserves.

Nonetheless, there is reason for hope. Responsible adults can become more actively involved in the protection of children now. Through education, people can more readily identify offender behaviors and be confident enough to report any suspicions they have to authorities. In Pennsylvania, concerned adults can contact the Child Line and Abuse Registry for reporting suspected child abuse. The phone number is: (800) 932-0313. Adults can also reach out to Women’s Services (724-4637) to teach their church, civic organization, business or workplace about prevention and how to become more active bystanders. School children receive this kind of education every year from our professional staff. For the past 25 years, Women’s Services has been providing more than 900 age-appropriate programs to school children about abuse and sexual assault. Many children have come forward to disclose abuse and receive the help they need to recover and heal. However, if adults suspect a child is being sexually abused and need to talk with someone before taking action, they can call the HERO Hotline at (877) 874-HERO. The HERO Project is a statewide prevention program sponsored by the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape and is designed to educate and motivate adult community members to intervene and take action. To learn more about the HERO project, visit heroproject.org.

Lastly, but most importantly, parents, guardians, and caregivers can foster open communication with children, establish personal boundaries, help children identify adults they can trust, monitor children’s online activities and be role models by promoting healthy relationships.

Only when we become truly intolerant of violence will we ever hope to affect its extinction. Quite frankly, after everything we have learned, if one more child is raped and sexually assaulted that, too, will be outrageous.

 

Harlan is executive director of Women’s Services Inc., a local agency that strives to meet the needs of children and adults who are in crisis due to domestic violence, sexual violence or homelessness.

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