I guess it’s understandable that the big question right now seems to be what Joe Paterno knew and when he knew it. As a Penn State alum, this makes me beyond sad. As an undergraduate, I actually had President Spanier as a professor in the College of Human Development, and my first masters degree is from what was then the College of Health and Physical Education. Parterno was among that faculty in my day, so this is personal to me.
I’ve devoted a large part of my career to the investigation, treatment and prevention of sexual abuse of children, much of it based on the foundation of the fine education I received from Penn State. We cannot condemn the entire institution. And solely focusing on Paterno – who I can’t help but thinking of as the Pope of Penn State – will not save any children. It’s truly unthinkable to me that a 21st century professional could think a phone call to anyone other than police was a sufficient response to an alleged eye-witness report of a child’s rape in one of his facilities. On the other hand, the thought of someone raping a child in one of his facilities may have seem so completely implausible that perhaps he thought his minimal response was adequate. Anyone who has ever had to face the crushing reality that a partner has been unfaithful for years or that a trusted employee has been embezzling money knows that the human mind only understands that which seems possible to us. Maybe, just maybe, this seemed so impossible to Paterno that he found his response sufficient.
So here’s one lesson for parents — Do not ever forget that the sexual abuse of children is a reality and the perpetrator really can be anyone. Even someone who appears to be a fine upstanding person who cares for your child and maybe even your family. Even a favorite teacher. A coach. The person you’re dating. The babysitter.
Here’s another lesson — There is absolutely no choice but to knowas much as you can about every adult spending time with your child. There is no substitute for vigilance. A convicted pedophile I interviewed for my book The Sex Wise Parent made it quite clear that kids lacking vigilant parents or caretakers were much more attractive targets. Pedophile coaches notice which parents stay for practice or show up unannounced then really pay attention to what’s happening on the field.
Here’s a third — Pedophiles ingratiate themselves into the life of your child and sometimes your family, and seduce your child by meeting his or her needs. This need could be emotional such as affection and attention from an adult male, or tangible as Todd Bridges described regarding his abuse by his publicist in his autobiography KillingWillis. By the time sex is introduced the child (or in some awful cases, the family) may accept sex as the price to be paid for the positive points of the relationship. The allegations reported in the Grand Jury report describe the seduction of vulnerable children with trips and gifts.
And the last lesson for now is this; families must provide children with information and language about sexuality. I’ll provide detail on how parents can do this in future posts. For now, concentrate on opening your mind to be able to think the unthinkable. Maybe if Joe Pa had been able to do that a few kids might have been saved.