As an advocate for child victims of sexual abuse and as a survivor of child sexual abuse myself, I am troubled by the lack of balance in recent media coverage of the child abuse scandal at Penn State. Too much coverage has focused on the disproportionate and ill-informed response of Penn State students, some of whom have taken to violent protest over what they see as the unfair firing of longtime coach Joe Paterno.
Missing in media accounts is a thoughtful exploration of actions taken by the Penn State board of trustees. While less provocative than the actions of some Penn State students, the board’s decision to fire all of the top officials involved in the scandal–including the legendary football coach—represents an appropriate and informed response to the facts of this case and the serious nature of what has been alleged.
It remains to be seen whether Coach Paterno or university president Graham Spanier violated the law by failing to comply with “mandated reporter” requirements (an allegation facing Bishop Finn of the Kansas City Catholic Diocese). What is clear is that the admitted failure to take swift and decisive action after learning of the abuse constitutes a moral and ethical failure that makes them unfit for continued service.
Childhood sexual abuse can have devastating and lifelong consequences. Penn State officials would do well to shift their focus now to addressing the needs of any possible victims of abuse and instituting reforms to prevent future abuse. And rather than facing punishment for breaking laws or codes of conduct, protesting students would be better served by education on the serious but gravely misunderstood issue of child sexual abuse.
As a volunteer for MOCSA (a Kansas City-based organization that treats survivors of sexual abuse and assault) and a professional grant maker in the social service arena, I am acutely aware of the critical importance of a prompt and therapeutically sound response to victims of sexual abuse. Failure on either account re-victimizes those who have fallen prey to sexual abuse and delays their difficult—yet highly possible—recovery from its effects.