Over the last several years there has been increasing public discussion on the issue of child sexual abuse. Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on your view, this discussion has been precipitated by several public scandals of epic proportions. First in the early part of the 21st century several courageous adult survivors of child sexual abuse came forward in the city of Boston to disclose their sexual abuse at the hands of priests within the Catholic Church. Their courageous actions rocked the Catholic Church across this country and would dominate the coverage of the Catholic Church in the media for the next decade.
Over ten years later in early November 2011 the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania was shocked when the Attorney General released a grand jury report which indicted several prominent current and former athletic figures at Penn State University Football Program. These indictments rocked the sports world nationwide. Over the next few months individuals would be arrested, one would be tried and several would be fired and the media coverage of Penn State was dominated with the sexual abuse scandal.
Never before had we heard sports writers talking about child sexual abuse. As with the Catholic Church the media covered the issue from variety of angles. What was most remarkable was the clear and concise way that the Patriot News, who broke the story and the sportswriters across America covered the story. Their coverage was clear – this is a crime story – a story about the lives of eight boys – now young men who courageously came forward to tell of their abuse. All were clear in their reporting – this was bigger than Penn State Football.
For the young men at Penn State and the adult survivors who came forward in Boston coming from the darkness into the light is a journey fraught with new challenges. What often follows in these public outings is that more victims are inspired with the courage to come forward. This is one reason why transparency by organizations about sexual violence is important. It can help to free others from their silence. Most victims go public when they feel that it is of value to others and or when the feel that the organization that should be responsive to them has failed them.
For these two organizations the public scandal often propelled them into a defensive posture. Both Penn State and The Catholic Church have responded in various ways to the scandal. The Church has been forced to take stock of the problem and begin internal review and changes that would, could and should prevent child sexual abuse in the future. These efforts have been evolving for the last decade.
The public nature of these scandals creates a unique situation for these organizations. While under investigation, or while trials occur, they must evaluate their own situation and make the necessary changes all under the watchful eye of the media. Many critics of Penn State and the Catholic Church will not acknowledge that these organizations and particularly the Church are attempting to address the problem of sexual violence within the organizations while the culture in which we live continues to struggle to understand it. As a society we still engage in victim blaming and judgment of the behavior of the victim. But we expect those in these organizations to get it right. We have a higher standard for these organizations than we do for ourselves. That is not to say that they should not be criticized but we need to recognize the additional burden that public attention places on them.
Unlike many others I believe that the Church is on the right path. Whether they will get to the place they need to be in time I am not sure. What I am sure about is that they will continue to struggle publicly with this issue. What I know for sure is that many other churches were in the same position as the Catholic Church but the spotlight was not on them. My father would always tell me that a “word to the wise was sufficient” and I saw that saying in action when other churches began to retool their efforts to protect children in response to the public scandal of the Catholic Church. Many however have chosen to view this as someone else’s problem
Penn State is early in its response to the scandal and time will only tell whether they get it right. There are still a number of investigations ongoing and the toll of those is yet to be seen. There are however many things that Penn State has done correctly and some not so well. But the true ending will be when Penn State embraces the idea that the reporting of child abuse is only a part of the problem. It is a culture within the University and the Atheletic Program that supports a culture of violence that is really what needs to be addressed.
If a word to the wise is sufficient, Universities across this country would be wise to look at their own policies and practices under Title IX pertaining to their response to sexual assault on campus in the aftermath of Penn State. They would be wise to take heed and learn something from Penn States mistakes. They would be wise no to take comfort in the fact that today they are not under the spotlight.
If a word to the wise is sufficient we would all question ourselves as to what we are doing to prevent sexual violence within ourselves, in our relationships with family, friends and loved ones, and colleagues to change our culture to one that does not support sexual violence.
January 23, 2012