In State College over the weekend, allegations came to light of the worst kind: repeated acts of sexual abuse against multiple children over the course of more than a decade by a respected member of the Penn State coaching community, Gerald Sandusky.
Sandusky has been accused of using The Second Mile, a charity he founded in 1977 to help children from troubled homes, as a source of alleged victims. As the Presentment states, “Through The Second Mile, Sandusky had access to hundreds of boys, many of whom were vulnerable due to their social situations.”
As disturbing as that detail may seem, according to Zabrina Finn, the Executive Director of The Women’s Center in Bloomsburg, it fits a common theme. Perpetrators of child sexual assault commonly know and have consistent access to and occupy a position of authority, power and trust in their victim’s life.
“Mr. Sandusky’s [alleged] activities do fit within the normative perpetrator profile,” she said. “It’s critically important to remember that children are often groomed by the perpetrator for the abuse… Since the perpetrators often already occupy positions of power in the child’s life, it becomes pretty easy to use that influence in the grooming process, then to perpetrate the abuse, and finally to ensure the victim’s silence.”
According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry’s website (AACAP), “child sexual abuse has been reported up to 80,000 times a year, but the number of unreported instances is far greater, because the children are afraid to tell anyone what has happened, and the legal procedure for validating an episode is difficult.”
When asked what warning signs adults should be aware of if they suspect another adult of inappropriate behavior with a child, Finn said “some red flags could be over the top gift-giving or repeated requests for private time with the child. Other red flags would be insinuating themselves in other aspects of the child’s life where the perpetrator might not have had access or as free access to the child previously such as showing up at the child’s sports practice or visiting them at the house of the child’s friend.”
As for what warning signs to look for in a child’s behavior, children who are victims of prolonged sexual abuse usually develop self-esteem issues. According to the AACAP, “the child may become withdrawn and mistrustful of adults, and can become suicidal.” Other red flags may include sleep problems or nightmares, an unusual interest in or avoidance of all things of a sexual nature, conduct problems, secretiveness, unusual aggressiveness, or aspects of sexual molestation coming out in the child’s drawings, games, or fantasies.
“Parents, guardians, loved ones and care givers should already be attuned to the normal behavior of the child and when changes occur ask questions, get involved, state clearly that the child can trust them and that they are always there to help them,” advises Finn.
Perhaps the most disquieting revelation in the Grand Jury Presentment was just how many times Sandusky was allegedly witnessed in compromising positions with minors by other adults who either turned a blind eye (afraid to admit that they saw what they thought they saw or for fear of losing their jobs if they said anything), or who told someone they erroneously thought would “take care of it.”
“Anytime anyone is confronted with the suspicion of or direct knowledge of child abuse of any kind, uncertainty, embarrassment, and fear are all pretty understandable responses,” said Finn. Whatever the circumstances, however, she said the appropriate action is to notify the authorities:
“We tell children in all of our educational presentations, ‘Keep telling. If someone doesn’t believe you the first time, or second time keep telling until someone does take it seriously.’ Adults could benefit from taking that advice as well. If you’ve had reason to suspect that child abuse is occurring (whether you’ve witnessed it or had someone else disclose it to you), it is important to tell and keep telling until the report is taken seriously.”
Finn believes that PSU is at an important juncture and how they move forward is not just of consequence to the parties involved with this case. “It is not only critically important that the PSU community provide full support to…victims,” Finn said, “(they must also) make great efforts to educate themselves on all levels; administration, educators, athletic staff, athletes and the rest of the student body, about sexual assault; particularly the signs and symptoms and supportive strategies.”