Friday, November 11, 2011

We Are Penn State

By now, you probably know what happened. At least eight young boys were allegedly sexually assaulted and/or raped in State College, Pennsylvania over the course of 15 years. The alleged perpetrator was an assistant coach for the Penn State football team, which, let's face it, is the only reason those of us outside of the area even know about it.

If the allegations aren't enough to outrage you, throw in the fact that two administrators were also arrested for allegedly covering it up and lying about it to the grand jury. They never even bothered to find out the name of the kid they knew had been assaulted. Joe Paterno, the head football coach, has lost his job for knowing about it, reporting it, but never questioning why nothing was done. The President of the college is out, too, for knowing something was up and not bothering to find out what.

If you have a strong stomach, you might want to read the grand jury report in its entirety (linked here). It gives you an understanding that "eight boys were molested" fails to capture. Two different people actually witnessed boys being raped and reported it, and nothing was done. The question in my mind, and probably a lot of yours, is not just how you can witness that and not stop it, but how you can sit back, knowing you've reported this, and, when nothing ever happens about it just keep it to yourself.

We're glued to this story because it's Penn State football. We're also glued to it because we want so badly to know that this couldn't happen if we were around. If we had seen it, if we had known, we would have stopped it. If it were our coworker, we would have stood up. If it had been our kid . . . it couldn't be our kid.

But let's look at the statistics. Estimates are that between 5% and 15% of men and between 15% and 25% of women were sexually abused as children. If you think about your circle of friends and acquaintances, however, it's unlikely you can think of that many who you know are survivors. That's because this is a crime of shame. Sexual assault -- on adults as well as on children -- is a crime that leaves the person who has been assaulted believing that there is something wrong with them. It is a crime of humiliation and degradation. So people don't tell.

We like to think, however, that telling is enough, and that's part of why the Penn State situation is so disturbing. If the secrecy is what let's this crime go on, then someone knowing about it should make it stop.

And yet, it can be a fine line. There are people who are creepy and inappropriate, who may well be abusers, but we don't have proof, or they're not abusers yet. And you can't ruin someone's life for being creepy. Being creepy is not a crime. Those cases, I know from personal experience, are agonizing.

In this case, though, it wasn't a fine line at all. People saw it happen. But the fact of the matter is, this situation -- that someone knew and nothing was done -- is far from an isolated incident.

I work with a lot of sexual abuse survivors. Whether by temperament or by training, I can listen to their stories with empathy without usually being traumatized myself. It doesn't generally get to me. But what gets to me, what I struggle with, is their stories about what happened when they tried to tell:
My mother told me to tell my father, but he was asleep so that was it.
My grandmother asked me what I did to make it happen?
My dad said I must have wanted it.
My pastor said I was going to hell for talking about sex.
My mom slapped my face and told me never to lie again.
My mother let him do it to me so he wouldn't go after my little brother and sister.
My mother put me in foster care because she didn't want to leave him.
Time after time after time, people tell me that their safety was sacrificed for family cohesion, reputation, the safety of others or simply someone else would not have to deal with the unthinkable.

And is what happened at Penn State so different? People knew but did not want to know. They played a gigantic round of the game "telephone," downplaying a little more as the report went on, to the point that they convinced themselves not to do anything. They sacrificed the safety of young boys for the reputation of the University, its athletic program and its coaches.

We, all of us, need to know that not only can this happen in our neighborhoods, it is happening in each of our neighborhoods, and we can stop it. We need to believe that no reputation or family togetherness or peace of mind is more important than the life of a child. Let us all look back on this incident, on this week, and say that this was the time the silence and complicity ended, not just at Penn State, but everywhere.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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