Watching the unfolding case of child sexual abuse at the hands of a former Penn State football coach, my mind spins back more than three and a half decades to when I became ensnared in a similar situation right here in Boulder.
For those who don’t know, a Pennsylvania grand jury has indicted former defensive coach Jerry Sandusky, once hailed as a “hero” and possible replacement for legendary head coach Joe Paterno. Sandusky has been charged with sexually assaulting at least eight boys over a 15-year period. The assaults are alleged to have taken place at the school’s football facilities, where Sandusky often brought disadvantaged kids from his Second Mile nonprofit (“Providing children with help and hope”).
Four top Penn State officials, including Paterno and the university president, have now been fired in the wake of an alleged cover up of the abuse.
What’s most sickening is that molestation charges had been leveled at Sandusky — who asserts his innocence — as far back as 1998. And in 2002, a graduate assistant, now assistant coach, told Paterno that he’d seen Sandusky raping a 10-year-old boy in a football facility shower. Paterno reported the incident to his immediate superior, who kicked it up the line — but nobody called child protective authorities or police.
In other words, whether due to denial, shame, or a desire to fend off scandal, powerful men at Penn State chose to protect a predator over a bunch of vulnerable kids.
In my own situation, a scoutmaster violated me and a number of other boys in our Boulder troop. And when I blew the whistle on Floyd David Slusher, nobody contacted authorities. Instead, troop leaders questioned my veracity and vaguely promised to make changes, such as ensuring that the scoutmaster was never alone with boys.
(There was one person who knew I was telling the truth: Dave Slusher himself. His last, disturbing words to me were, “I’m going to kill you.”)
I quit scouting and Slusher moved on from our disintegrating troop in search of new prey. In 1977 he was caught red-handed, and eventually pleaded guilty to one count of sexual assault on a minor. He was sentenced to incarceration under the Colorado Sex Offenders Act.
Released on parole in 1984, Slusher soon took up his old ways. He was convicted again in 1990 on three felony counts of sexual exploitation of children and one count of being a habitual offender. He was sentenced to a total of 75 years and remains incarcerated today.
The tragedy of both cases is that more kids were hurt because adults did not act when they could have. Yet I hold the Penn State officials far more culpable than the men who led our scout troop. In the mid-1970s, most Americans had not been educated in how to handle such situations.
The troop leaders, fathers of scouts, must have felt deep anguish and confusion, and tremendous guilt when Slusher went on to victimize other boys. Yet even my dad — who was my rock throughout the ordeal — didn’t think to notify the police. They just didn’t know what to do.
No one can plead such ignorance today. The men at Penn State had all the education they needed, but failed to protect kids anyway.
Thankfully, much has changed.
Adults and kids today are much more likely to speak up about sexual assault.
And while they’ve endured a terrible trauma, at least Sandusky’s alleged victims won’t be told to buck up and shut up. They’ll have people to help them deal with complicated feelings about what happened. Many child victims feel shame and guilt, or even affection for the perpetrator. But they don’t have to bear that burden forever.
So far as I know, the boys in my troop didn’t get counseling. And why would they have? After all, some of the adults they turned to had survived their own abuse, and they’d “toughed it out” it — for good or ill — through denial. Those who haven’t gone through the experience can’t imagine how being sexually abused can affect the rest of one’s life.
But some things haven’t changed, including many myths about childhood sexual assault.
First, this is not about homosexuality. Sandusky’s alleged assaults are no more salacious or shocking because his victims were boys rather than girls. Most molesters, whether their victims are male or female, identify as heterosexuals in terms of adult sexuality.
And everyone gets hung up on the particular physical acts inflicted upon children. Here’s some news: the root violation is boundary crossing by a trusted adult. This is an assault on the psyche as much as the body, on a kid’s sense of trust and safety in the world. And while some acts obviously may cause more physical trauma, touching, kissing, or even simple propositioning are no less intrusive psychologically — which is why all are illegal.
I also take issue with those who express glee at the prospect that Sandusky will wind up in prison, where he’ll be raped himself. A plea: If you harbor such thoughts, fine; but please keep them to yourself. You are not helping victims. You’re just revealing your own shadows.
And let’s remember that Sandusky was probably a victim of childhood sexual assault himself. Studies have found that anywhere from 60 to 90 percent of perpetrators were sexually abused. That is not an excuse — but it is a clue as to how we can break this terrible cycle.
What then, must we do?
First, it’s time to broaden laws criminalizing failure to report child abuse to all adults. It’s tricky territory, but imagine how different it would have been at Penn State, among Catholic bishops or in my scout troop if leaders had known they could face punishment for non-reporting. They would have the cover of the law, and the relief of knowing it was not their job to determine the validity of claims.
Second, while there are times — such as in a nasty custody battle — when children are persuaded to lie about abuse, it’s extremely rare. In other words, we must take victims seriously from the moment they make an allegation. I know they didn’t mean to, but the troop leaders who largely dismissed my concerns also violated my sense of trust and safety.
All victims should be given intensive therapy, at no charge (or paid for by the perpetrator), as long as they want it. In fact, given the troubling fact that so many victims become perpetrators, some therapy should be mandatory.
We must never hush this stuff up. That only sends the message that the victim should feel shame or guilt or culpability — just as many abusers want them to. Our silence hurts victims past, present and future.
Finally, society must stop pretending that these perpetrators are aliens or monsters in our midst. They are not evil, but sick, and they are ours. In a society that is simultaneously repressive and hyper-sexualized, this problem belongs to all of us. It is the responsibility of every adult to stand up for the most vulnerable.