Child abuse demands that we choose sides. The victim demands that we speak up and take action; the perpetrator demands that we remain silent. Do-nothing bystanders collude with the abuser, enabling him to continue devouring children. That's what is alleged at Penn State. Football trumped the lives of children.
Sexual predators will always plague us, out there scanning for prey. The tragedy is that many were victimized as children. They were not protected, no one recognized the traumatic aftereffects, and they had no treatment. Even more malignant are bystanders who averted their gaze. They keep the abuse cycle grinding the next generation. Shame on all of us.
It's time to stop deluding ourselves that we can protect children by focusing on "Chester the Molester," the creepy man in the raincoat with lollipops in his pockets. There is no way to spot a predator based on social class, appearance or intelligence.
Pedophiles are exquisitely skilled. They are masters of disguise, knowing how to place themselves amid children so they have easy pickings, without arousing suspicion. They "groom" the most vulnerable ones with expert precision, rendering those children even more defenseless. That appears to be what alleged abuser Jerry Sandusky did. He was especially clever in growing a crop of vulnerable children in his "charity." If he is like many pedophiles, he might have abused dozens or even hundreds of children.
Some abusers live right in the middle of a family. Finding victims is the easiest for them. They just walk down the hall or into the basement. Other family members close their eyes. The abused child is sacrificed on the altar of family "loyalty." As an adult, the abused may come forward to spill the family secret. The rest of the family circles the wagons to protect the family name. Often, the truth-teller is labeled crazy and banished from the family.
Institutions protect their reputations (or "brand names") by shielding sexual abusers. Loyalty to the institution supersedes the moral imperative to protect children. That describes what is alleged at Penn State. Many students rallied around the head coach, Joe Paterno, as if he were the victim. Like others in the administration, Mr. Paterno apparently chose Penn State football over the bodies and souls of little boys. If only it were limited to that institution.
For the past 20 years, we've read about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and how it protected the perpetrators instead of the parishioners. In South Baltimore, a Catholic middle school teacher, John Merzbacher, violated students — sometimes at gunpoint. During school. Other teachers (i.e., nuns) saw him smacking students and grabbing boys' bottoms, heard him calling boys "faggots" and girls "rotten crotches." No adult did anything, until 20 years later when some of those students grew into adults who bravely joined together to take legal action. They couldn't all be there — some became addicts, some were too terrified, and others had committed suicide. The church did not lift a ringed finger to help the victims. In criminal court, Mr. Merzbacher received a life sentence plus 10 years. The statute of limitations protected the church.
This scenario played out many years ago at Boys Town in Nebraska. You remember — the place for orphaned and troubled youth? In this case, a boy was sodomized by a gang of other boys. He had tried to run away from the ringleader before but was caught by a police officer and driven straight back to Boys Town. No questions asked. He was covered in bruises and stayed at the infirmary. No questions asked. When the boy became a man, he told Boys Town what had happened to him. "It was such a long time ago," they responded.
It happened at the American Boychoir School outside of Princeton, N.J. Dozens of boys were sexually violated by a series of adults. One choir director was fired over a "love affair" with a boy. A love affair? Maybe he loved abusing the little boy, but I doubt it was reciprocated.
The list goes on. And on.
We need to be hypervigilant to protect children — not just our children but all children. This will require comprehensive tactics. We must teach adults to recognize the symptoms of sexual abuse, provide trauma treatment for all sexually abused children and adults, provide therapy for people with sexual behavior problems, hold institutions accountable for abuse under their purview, and eliminate the statute of limitations in cases of sexual abuse. That is just the beginning.
Children are not objects. No one owns them. They have basic human rights. Until we begin to value children, not in the sappy picture-postcard way but deeply and authentically, perpetrators and bystanders will leave a pile of mangled bodies and souls behind. But who's counting?
Emily Samuelson, a psychologist in Towson, is director of "The Soaring Project," an oral history/photography project and book-in-progress about thriving survivors of sexual abuse. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.