We’ve all seen the news by now. Penn State University fired legendary head football coach, Joe Paterno, after one of his longtime coaches, Jerry Sandusky, was arrested for alleged multiple instances of sexual assault on children. The investigation indicates that after Paterno became aware of the suspected abuse, he reported it to his supervisor but failed to notify the police. Football is a major part of Penn State’s campus culture and thousands of students vented their anger about Joe Paterno’s dismissal by rioting and in doing that seemed to be forgetting about the children who had been victims of abuse.
Most media have been focusing on investigating the reaction of students and the fall of an icon, which has overshadowed the stories of the survivors who have courageously taken a stand. Even in low profile sexual assault cases, survivors are often ignored or scoffed at. So, can you imagine coming forward and publicly admitting that you were sexually assaulted under these circumstances and with national attention?
One person is sexually assaulted in the United States every two minutes. 44% of victims are under 18 years of age. 1 out of 6 American women will be the targets of attempted or completed rape at least once in their lifetime. This means that survivors of sexual assault are always all around us, even if they are silent about their histories. And, unfortunately, it is not uncommon for a perpetrator to be a trusted member of one’s community – in fact, approximately 2/3rd of survivors knew their perpetrators before the instance of sexual assault. Most perpetrators have hurt scores of others and will continue to do so, if the abuse is not reported and stopped.
Once more details of the story and the allegations were released, the Penn State student body began to understand the human tragedy that had taken place there and shifted their focus. Students showed support for the victims by holding a candlelight vigil and devoted a moment of silence before their final home game. It is imperative to that each of us channel the feelings of anger, violation, confusion and distrust that these allegations have stirred in many of us to focus on helping survivors in our community heal. How can we do this? For one, we should always listen and give survivors the benefit of the doubt if they choose to come forward. It may be difficult for us to hear that the perpetrator might have been someone we respected and that he or she is not the person we had thought. Still, we have to remember that the survivor is struggling much more than we are as listeners.
If the survivor is an adult who was just recently attacked, you can encourage him or her to go to the hospital to get help, including a physical examination as well as an evaluation and treatment for STDS and HIV. You can also get find help from some of the resources listed under Get Help on ifIknew.org. Some survivors may choose report the assault to the police or social services immediately, whereas others might not feel safe taking legal action right away. We may understand that the sooner a survivor goes to the police the greater the chances of preventing someone else from becoming their victim, but as a friend and listener, it is important to respect how that survivor chooses to handle the situation. Just being there and validating the survivor’s experience and feelings often helps him or her regain the strength and ability to move forward and address the situation.
If you have reason to suspect a child, maybe a friend, is being abused, report the abuse to an adult you trust or to the department of social services or the police. Certain professionals are legally mandated to report abuse but even if you don't fall within that mandate, remember that children depend on adults and people they trust to protect them and keep them safe. To learn more about reporting abuse and neglect in Maryland, click here.
Let's all keep coming forward and standing up for the victims of abuse and assault.