Penn State — What to Say?

A college buddy of mine happened to read on Facebook that I was recently appointed to the Board of Directors of Male Survivor: The Organization Against Male Sexual Victimization. He had purchased my memoir, so he likely knew of my own history as a survivor of incest. Jack’s comment to me was something like, “Someday I’d like to get your take on the whole Penn State thing.”

I’ve thought about his request for days. What is there to add to all that’s been said and written? I could be one of the many to take the media to task for their uber-focus on Sandusky, Paterno and their Nittany Lion co-conspirators, instead of on the grueling, life-long harm done to victims of pedophiles. To my knowledge (and I’m a dogged consumer of news on this topic), there has yet to be a thorough analysis of the plight of survivors of sexual trauma at the hands of ruthless men who go after boys. I want to be clear: I’m not suggesting a salacious expose of Sandusky’s victims and what their lives have been.  How about some balanced, compassionate reporting of the long term effects of sexual trauma on survivors?  There are many men out there, including public figures like Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown and actor/director Tyler Perry, who have told their stories publicly and whose experiences could be used to develop a complete, caring, yet honest depiction of life after abuse. So that’s my first thought. More focus on the victims, please.

But how to answer Jack’s question about Penn State?

At the center of these crimes is Jerry Sandusky, a classic pedophile whose obsession over sex with boys drove him to risk everything in his efforts to find, befriend, groom and assault his young victims, even blatantly setting up Second Mile, a non-profit for underprivileged kids, as a breeding ground for future prospects. Sandusky was likely abused himself as a child. Statistics confirm that a very high percentage of pedophiles were themselves abused as children. This by no means lessens his responsibility for his actions. It does, however, underscore what we already know about the role of childhood sexual assault in the perpetuation of pedophilia. It also gives us one important reason why we must stop these assaults on children. We humans do what we learn. Sometimes what we’re taught overpowers the potential for goodness in our neuropsychology. Then we have to painstakingly unlearn problematic behaviors. But in this case, the recidivism rate for offenders is disturbingly high. Pedophilia is not curable. It’s a chronic condition that needs constant attention. It’s wiser to watch offenders closely than to encourage repentance and seek a rapid cure. For a brief treatise on pedophiles read:

Meanwhile, at the helm at Penn State, University President Graham Spanier, Senior Vice President Gary Schultz, Athletic Director Tim Curley and Coach Joe Paterno were Sandusky’s enablers. The Freeh report released last week about the scandal made that patently clear. The most shocking finding was that Coach Paterno was more culpable than he admitted when he testified under oath before the grand jury. The report claimed Paterno actively interfered with the recommendation of Curley and Schultz to inform the authorities that Sandusky had been observed by an assistant coach assaulting a boy in a Penn State shower room. This revelation recently led to internal actions by the university to discredit Coach Paterno by permanently removing his statue from public display. Remember, he had already been taken out of his position before he passed away. For a more complete analysis of the Freeh Report check out Eric Prisbell’s piece in USA Today:

This new information begs two serious questions: What further actions should be taken at Penn State and by the NCAA to prevent similar tragedies in the future? Again, a lot has already been reported in this regard, but I would like to share some thoughts about Penn State itself and the NCAA penalties that the university has now suffered as a result of the scandal.

First the penalties. This week I listened to a report on Michel Martin’s NPR program Tell Me More about the Penn State sanctions. I won’t list all the sanctions here, but they were harsh and designed to send a message to all NCAA member institutions. Michel’s guest was Sports Illustrated reporter Pablo Torre. He was asked by Michel whether the NCAA has the authority to force the sanctions that they placed on the university. Critics are arguing that they do not. Torre considered that argument valid but nevertheless supported the NCAA’s decisions, because Sandusky used the football program as a platform for his crimes, and because university administrators abetted his actions. In Torre’s words, “The NCAA needs to say something about this. And if they’re going to say something, what they did today, this morning, is honestly a very good set of punishments under that rubric.” Read the full interview at:

Whether the NCAA has the authority or not, the reasoning behind their decisions was correctly driven by the organization’s responsibility to speak and act forcefully about crimes that are committed under the aegis of a university’s sports program. Because of the dire consequences of sexual assaults, and the knowledge that Sandusky abused multiple boys with the help of his bosses, critics are wrong to challenge the NCAA for overstepping its authority and risk siding with the likes of a pedophile and his see no evil coach — in effect, making them a cause célèbre. The business of Penn State should now be to accept the consequences, heal its wounds and rebuild faith in the system. Yes, Paterno was a football genius, but he’ll be remembered as a criminal who escaped life before he would likely have faced charges. That’s what happens to men with fatal flaws, no matter how stellar their other accomplishments. Critics of the NCAA decision should let it go. They are misguided. I am adding my voice to Mr. Torre’s and commending the NCAA for their actions.

How could this happen at Penn State (or at any other institution for that matter)?

Twenty-five years ago, when I was an academic dean and director of the elementary and secondary schools at Gallaudet University, and years before I understood how I had been sexually victimized by my father, I received reports that one of our staff members was acting “inappropriately” with high school students. The individuals making the reports did not talk directly with me, because they viewed this individual as “powerful” and with connections that could jeopardize their futures at the university.  No “hard” evidence was reported, no sightings, no first hand information, just suspicions and innuendos. I had my own suspicions about the person.

Without information on which we could act, but concerned for our students and all staff members, our management team developed and introduced a policy not common in those days regarding “inappropriate fraternization” with students. Of course, there was legislation in place regarding child sexual assault and the reporting of suspected abuse to the authorities, but the allegations from staff did not rise to a level that triggered an investigation when reported. We nevertheless wanted to send a message that such behaviors would not be tolerated. By promulgating a specific school policy concerning this issue, we made explicit what should have been implicitly understood by all school personnel. I surmised that the staff member under suspicion knew that he was being targeted at the time, and that was okay.

When I think about Penn State in light of my own sexual victimization, and my experience in reporting abuse as both a school administrator and a licensed professional counselor, two ideas seem important in helping the university move forward.

First, consider the role that the Paterno football legacy played, not only in shaping, but at times directing the decisions of Penn State. When Coach Paterno persuaded Curley and Schultz not to report the assault, and the Freeh Report says the president concurred, Joe was the one in charge. He was in control (or out of control, depending on how you frame it). President Spanier even responded in an email that “having a talk” with Sandusky instead seemed like the “humane” thing to do, a talk that never actually happened. Really? Sandusky’s offense wasn’t insubordination or overspending his accounts. He didn’t need a scolding. What he did was a crime, a brutal, violent attack on a young boy’s body. It’s no surprise that Spanier is now covering his tracks by ripping the Freeh report as error-ridden. Read it in the NY Daily News:

In any case, we now know that Joe was the “decider in chief” in that instance. How many more instances were there like that?

So, first and foremost, university leaders abrogated their responsibility. Not reporting child abuse has resulted in removal from their jobs and criminal prosecution. Termination for not reporting abuse is common in school environments. In moving forward, Penn State will do well to hire and retain leaders who understand and follow the law but go above and beyond when it comes to the protection of innocents in any way connected to university programs and personnel. There are glimmers of hope that the message has been heeded by Board Chairwoman Karen Peetz, new President Rod Erickson and Acting Athletic Director David Joyner. When you are in charge you find a way to do the right thing, whether or not it’s required by law.

Paterno was allowed to amass too much power, given too much latitude. This is an imbalance recognizable at many sports-minded institutions of higher learning. But in this case, failure to override the protections Paterno afforded to Sandusky, not once, but many times over, allowed the continued abuse of boys. If any one of Paterno’s superior’s had stood up for what was right, it would not have come to this. That’s on them and it’s now up to the courts to decide punishments, just like with Sandusky. Paterno may be getting his consequence on the other side.

These administrative cover-ups are eerily similar to a Salon report yesterday on the sentencing of Monsignor William Lynn, the Catholic cleric who received three to six years for knowingly reassigning a pedophile priest to parish work, thus facilitating the abuse of yet another boy. In a scathing condemnation, Judge M. Teresa Sarmina declared that Lynn aided “monsters in clerical garb . . . to destroy the souls of children, to whom you had turned a hard heart.” In her equally scathing commentary, Mary Elizabeth Williams, the Salon author, was just as harsh in her tone. “There is a direct line flowing from Lynn’s choices to the molestation of a little boy. A minimum of three years in jail? I’d say that’s good for a start.” Can we not agree that William Lynn and Joe Paterno each took specific actions to allow abuse to continue? It’s hard for me to feel any compassion regarding their punishments. When harmful acts are this deliberate, it’s distasteful to consider mitigating circumstances. The full Salon report can be read at:

Secondly, I can imagine a day in the past when Penn State cheerleaders were chanting “We are Penn State! We are the Nittany Lions!” from the sidelines. Shouting that you are the school, or the family, or the tribe at your opponents is as old as human groups. It’s designed to rev up the troops for battle. You stifle your individual identity and selflessly support the common interests; in this case making money and winning a national title. Everyone – students, administrators, alumni, staff and faculty do whatever it takes for the cause. With victory the single focus, undue harm to others is sometimes the collateral damage. There is nothing more important to a soldier when on a mission than solidarity with his brothers and sisters, but how many times have soldiers committed atrocities in the name of country? Think of the Vietnam War’s Mi Lai Massacre and Iraq’s Abu Ghraib. After the fact you can understand where things went wrong in terms of human dynamics, but it’s not right. It should never have happened in the first place.

The comparison of Penn State’s lapses to war crimes is admittedly a stretch, but the dynamics are the same. Think of it as a matter of scale. A Nittany Lion “soldier” was out of control. His “lieutenant” and even the “general” did nothing to stop him. They didn’t confront him, ask him to stop, or give a warning. When his assaults came to light, they chose denial. Then they closed ranks and the cover-up began. Something allowed Paterno and his bosses to look the other way after a colleague sodomized a boy in a university shower room. Can anyone think of a more logical reason?

Penn State, after accepting the NCAA sanctions this week, is planning to right the wrongs at the university. Task forces are being established to study areas where failures occurred, the board is promising more involvement in the operation of the school and the community will discuss shifting its culture form what it was to what it should be. This is commendable. Anger over the limitations placed on its sports programs may be difficult to temper, given the historical fervor over football and Joe Paterno that got the school in this fix in the first place. Then again, perhaps the Nittany Lion will emerge from the changes healthier than ever before, and collateral damage will become just an artifact of a bygone era.

But we must think about the boys who are now young men and struggling. What will Penn State do for them? How will the institution help repair their lives? Offering compensation is laudable but not the complete answer. Be creative Penn State. Use your knowledge, skills, research and some of your money to develop curricula, programs, trainings, centers or degrees designed to prevent all forms of sexual assault. Do it for the boys, Penn State. The solution will not be complete until the university has satisfied this request to everyone’s satisfaction.



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4 Responses to Penn State — What to Say?

  1. Bill Robinson says:

    This is as complete and thorough an analysis of the Penn State scandal as any that I’ve seen in print. Penn State will continue to be a rich university and the football program will still earn millions of dollars in the years to come. Channel that money to develop programs and curriculum to ensure that this never happens again.

  2. Dr. Mike says:

    The Washington Post carried an Op Ed piece today (07/28/12) by Roderick A. Erickson entitled “Penn State: The Way Forward.” Erickson is the new president of the university. It’s uncanny how much his tone and what he proposes for the university so closely parallels what I recommended in my recent post on the Penn State situation. So nice to see him responding this way.

  3. Faatiima says:

    This whole topic makes me sick and pissed off. i have read the itiecnmdnt and I am not going to defend JoPa or any of the administration at Penn State that heard what was happening with Sandusky and the boy in the shower. With that being said I believe that everyone’s anger is directed at the wrong person. We should be extremely disappointed with the way the situation was handled by the administration at Penn State but the real focus should be on the grad student. He is the one that after being an eye witness to a rape did nothing to stop it but run home to tell his father. Upon disusing the scene with him he decided to wait a full day to report the incident not to the police but to JoPa. Who in turn relayed what he had been told to his supervisors. At this point everything is one mans word against another. This is where the administration is at fault for not reporting something of this nature to the police. However, as a male in my 20s I do not understand how someone who is a former football player and physically fit did not beat the piss out of a man they see raping a young boy. Instead of running away and hiding for 10 years this grad student should have taken immediate action by putting on his big boy pants and calling the police himself. This man (at this point in time) is still on the coaching staff at Penn State. Now people are calling for a self imposed death penalty at Penn State because football is too important to the school. Lets get one thing straight here. Football should be about the guys playing the sport. None of which have done anything wrong. Why punish them? With the incident that has taken place Penn State will see enough damage to their school and legacy. It has been a sad week for college football

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