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Put the victims first

It is coming up on one year since the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse story broke and just about a week since his sentencing, and I am pondering what we have learned from it and where we are in relation to more open dialogue about sexual abuse.

Here is what I know for sure. Jerry Sandusky, former assistant football coach at Penn State University, is a serial pedophile, and he abused children of various ages for extended periods of time. Eight brave survivors of abuse came forward for the trial, but many more have not come forward for various individual, personal reasons. Penn State and longtime football coach Joe Paterno knew that Mr. Sandusky was abusing children and decided it was more important to protect the university and the esteemed football program than to protect children. All this was clearly demonstrated in the Freeh report. Is there anyone out there who truly believes that Mr. Paterno did not know what was going on in his football program or that former president Graham Spanier was unaware of what was happening at his university? If they had spoken up at the time, they could have all been heroes, and many children's lives would have been spared the trauma of sexual abuse.

Mr. Sandusky was found guilty of his crimes, and now we have a sentence. Although I feel that a 400-year sentence would have been appropriately symbolic for the survivors and shown all sexual abuse survivors that this horrific crime warrants such a gesture, the judge chose 30-60 years. Yes, Mr. Sandusky will spend the rest of his life in prison. I hope he lives a very long time. However, the sentence disappoints because it does not demonstrate how cruel and horrific these acts are to children. I feel let down that Mr. Sandusky will live in a place where he can work and watch TV, including Penn State football games.

I am most concerned about the survivors and their feelings about all of this. They are so brave and so strong. They spoke up in a courtroom in front of people and revealed who they are, what Mr. Sandusky did to them and the impact on their lives. I could never be that brave. I admit with great anxiety and trepidation that I was sexually abused by my step-grandfather throughout my childhood. It is hard for me to write this. So I completely empathize with these brave, young victims. Every time someone defends Penn State or the deceased Mr. Paterno or the football team, it hurts me — because I know it hurts them.

I have had several occasions when I had the misfortune of finding myself in a group that began talking about Penn State football, and the sentiment always seems to be about the "poor student athletes" and how all of this has been so unfair and difficult for them. These people seem to spare no thought for the survivors of the sexual abuse. To me, that says that football and athletes continue to be what is most important in the minds of many. Money, power and winning are more important than poor, powerless, nameless, faceless victims. This destroys me a little more each time I hear empathy for the athletes and Penn State football.

In the weeks after the guilty verdict and the Freeh report, I read some articles and editorials on sexual abuse and pedophiles and what to look out for and what laws need to be changed. I'm sure some positive changes have taken place. It is an unpleasant subject to talk about, and shame is what keeps it hidden.

Advocacy against sexual abuse will never have the power and money behind it that sports do in this country, but the more people who feel able to openly talk about it, the more healing for those who have been forever scarred by sexual abuse. I understand anew that no amount of therapy and growth will ever truly heal the scars of childhood sexual abuse. It never goes away. The triggers are always there.

Let us try to help the true victims — the sexual abuse survivors who had the misfortune of knowing Jerry Sandusky — and show them some empathy. People are more important than football.

Betsy Schindler lives in Baltimore and is a social worker with a children's hospice. Her email is betschind@aol.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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