WASHINGTON, June 8, 2012 — As the trial of Jerry Sandusky begins, I am filled with both hope and fear of what twelve jurors will decide the innocence of a child is worth. Whether justice can erase a lifetime of suffering and restore the invaluable nature of a childhood recklessly vandalized.
The implications of this case have echoed across the country as victims of childhood sexual abuse have broken the silence of a lifetime of suffering. I count myself among this number. As the news of the accusations against Sandusky broke in early November of last year, so did the remnants of a wall that had kept me imprisoned my entire life. A victim of child abuse, the inescapable grip of silence kept my life forever languishing in the hell most survivors endure.
So what is it about Sandusky that has incited an “Arab Spring” among those who have suffered the loss of their innocence by the vilest of thieves? The persona of Jerry Sandusky is the same mask pedophiles use to camouflage themselves as they hunt the most vulnerable in society. This image was reinforced when Syracuse University Assistant Basketball Coach Bernie Fine was accused of molesting two ball boys in the 1970’s and continuing to abuse them into the 1990’s. Fine was later fired by Syracuse as a firestorm of accusations erupted implicating his wife for having knowledge of his sexual abuse of young boys but doing nothing.
What is important about both of these cases is they bring to light revelations about both pedophiles and victims. The image of the pedophile in the corner of most people’s minds, as a social deviant, a monster, clouds their ability to see the true nature of this type of predator. Although pedophiles can be violent, most are non-confrontational and highly manipulative, “seducing” their victims with what they desire most, and that is typically attention.
They operate in a stealthy manner that precludes them from detection as they glide in social circles and operate under the guise of philanthropy. Most children who are at risk for abuse come from backgrounds where dysfunction has defined their lives. Many children from impoverished backgrounds fall into this category, and Jerry Sandusky used the charity he founded as a collection point for disadvantaged kids, some of whom became his victims.
In 1977 Jerry Sandusky founded the Second Mile Foundation as a charity for “at risk” children. As he made regular visits to the foundation, he interacted with the children, playing games and reading stories. He inserted himself into the lives of children who had probably never known kindness from an adult and bore the scars of years of emotional isolation. I will tell you from experience when you are a child from a dysfunctional family subjected to emotional, physical and even sexual abuse, anyone who pretends to care can become Santa Claus in your eyes.
Sandusky’s attorney has described him as a “big kid,” and adopting the thought process of a kid is how most pedophiles worm their way into a child’s affections. A sixty year old man who knows more about what interests a child than their own parents is a red flag, especially when there is inappropriate physical contact involved. Sandusky gave these children gifts and took them to Penn State football games; he made them feel important, that they mattered, and then threatened to take it all away. To a child from a dysfunctional family, to feel that you are cared for and matter to somebody is a drug that is almost impossible to give up.
Pedophiles create an addiction in children for affection and attention, supplementing this with gifts these children could only dream about. It is the highest form of emotional blackmail, and by the time a pedophile’s attention becomes sexual, the child is trapped. Imprisoned by their own minds, they face a loss of what has filled the huge hole in their lives created by a past ruled by dysfunction.
They even face retribution from their families as the pedophile may threaten to worsen their situation at home by telling their parents they have done something wrong. Faced with these decisions, most victims of child sex abuse are manipulated into remaining in relationships with a pedophile. My own abuse lasted from the age of five until the age of fourteen. This is typically the age most pedophiles lose interest and begin to seek another young victim, leaving the shattered husk of a vandalized childhood behind.
Victims are at a severe disadvantage on several fronts. As in the Sandusky case, many survivors take decades to speak of the abuse they suffered. The shame and pain of that one event, coupled with the fear of not being believed, can be so great that a lifetime may pass without its mention.
Elizabeth Taylor spoke of James Dean as he confided to her the sexual abuse he suffered as a child at the hands of a pastor. Ozzy Osbourne, Carlos Santana and the brave voices of Ashley Judd and Mackenzie Phillips who have all come forward to inspire those who have suffered abuse to break their silence.
The wind has been changing for survivors and the movement to break the back of silence has swelled to large numbers. So when Sandusky’s defense team accuses those who have come forward of seeking monetary gain and trying to bring down this great “legend” of Penn State, I have to ask, “Who would bring this on themselves? Who would bring on the ridicule and trauma that opens devastating old wounds?” No one would drag himself or herself through the hell of revisiting an agony that had dominated their lives unless they truly sought justice.
In the 1980’s, the scandal that rocked the Catholic Church created the cracks in the wall of silence that have continued their growth until the case against Sandusky saw it begin to crumble. The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests grew out of the Church tragedy and they have seen a worldwide movement to expose sex abuse even now as a scandal rocks the Dutch Catholic Church. If Jerry Sandusky is convicted of just a fraction of the 52 counts of sexual abuse he is accused of, the verdict will echo around the world as more survivors shed a lifetime of pain to finally come forward.
What is at stake for the victims of Jerry Sandusky is the very root of their existence. The courage these individuals have shown has been an overwhelming inspiration for many victims of child abuse, including myself. The validation of the decades of pain they have suffered due to their victimization as young children is what lies in the balance during this trial. I will tell you from my own personal experience that money or even vengeance against the abuser is nowhere near as valuable as the acknowledgement by your peers that you were abused and have a right to justice.
If Jerry Sandusky is found guilty and serves only one day in jail, these victims will have found validation that their innocence was worth more than a sideline pass to a Penn State game. There will also be a continued redefinition of what a pedophile is. With that has to come the realization that Sandusky is representative of hundreds of others who use their reputation, as camouflage to steal the most precious treasure a child knows, their innocence.
No matter what the outcome of the trial of Jerry Sandusky, his case has changed societies’ perception of child abuse and spurred undeniable momentum in the cause for victims’ rights. It is sad to think that it required such tremendous suffering and pain to get our collective attention. As victims of child abuse, our relentless goal has to be to never let society forget what monsters lie beneath the surface of our daily life. We have to remind people that although we have suffered in silence for many years, we will no longer bear the burden for our abusers. We will win our freedom and our right to happiness with the blood and sweat of our very souls.
I work every day to try to make a difference in the struggle to end child abuse through my journalistic efforts and involvement with organizations that educate parents, children and teachers about the warning signs of child abuse. We have to arm all responsible adults with the knowledge of what appropriate physical contact consists of and what the signs are that a child is being “groomed” by a pedophile before it becomes too late.
The only way to fight child abuse effectively is for everyone to become involved in its prevention by coming together in communities and protecting “at risk” children. The CDC looked at victims of child abuse reported in one year and estimated the cost of caring for these victims over their lifetime was $124 billon. In 2008 1,740 children from the age of 0 to 17 died of abuse. That number is 1,740 children who could have lived if we had more tools in place to recognize and circumvent abusive situations.
This means legislation for mandatory reporting of abuse like the law the Governor of Louisiana Bobby Jindal just signed that was inspired by the Penn State scandal. We need to examine the current laws regarding the statute of limitations on reporting child sex abuse and find a way for victims to find justice. Education in our schools must prepare students and teachers to recognize and act decisively when the signs of child abuse are recognized and we as a community must strengthen our resolve to end the tragedy of child abuse.
Jerry Sandusky could have been stopped in 1994 when he was first accused of sexual abuse but instead he continued to prey on the most vulnerable in society until one victim’s voice shattered the silence. As I watch the trial I pray for justice for the victims of Jerry Sandusky and hope that all who have suffered the tragedy of child abuse will find an end to their silence.