PORTLAND — Like myriad other sexual abuse survivors, I may be biased in my view of the Penn State sex abuse scandal. But, truthfully, who isn’t horrified by the allegations of abuse at the hands of Jerry Sandusky, assistant football coach and Second Mile founder, as well as the apparent cover-up by university officials?

Equally horrifying is that the state of Pennsylvania, along with a handful of other states, currently doesn’t have a law requiring those who witness or receive reports of sexual abuse to go directly to the police.

Witnesses telling then-Coach Joe Paterno wasn’t enough. Paterno reporting to the athletic director wasn’t enough. Even the athletic director disclosing events to a university vice president wasn’t enough. Nothing short of going immediately to law enforcement was enough.

The whole tragedy smacks of the Catholic Church’s own sex abuse scandal, one that has rocked the church to its very core. The fact of the matter is completely innocent kids were hurt. And they above all else are the ones who deserve protection.

The scariest part of all? Who knows what other abuse is taking place in institutions across the United States – universities, churches, schools, youth groups, and, of course private homes like the one I grew up in? How can we possibly protect our kids when the interest of saving institutional face comes first?

First, no job, no religion, no relationship and certainly no college football program trumps the value of a child’s safety. None.

Second, suspicions of abuse belong in the hands of the police. No matter what.

Third, kids need to know that they are cherished and cared for. They need to know that if someone – anyone – touches them inappropriately they’re not going to get in trouble for telling a trusted adult.

Which brings me to my next point: Children deserve people in their lives to keep them safe and protected from predators. Did I trust my parents back when I was 12 and victimized? Not a bit. Was I justified? Maybe, maybe not.

The point is, I never got the message that if I felt uncomfortable about how someone treated me, I could ask for help. No one talked about it all those years ago. Are we talking about it enough today?
Much to its credit, Maine has strict, child-centered reporting requirements. Moreover, I know that over the years, our own kids learned at school, at the pediatrician and at home what constituted safe – and unsafe – touching.

Even the Catholic Church in Maine, which, frankly, has a great deal to be ashamed of in its dealing with predatory priests, has made progress on a number of fronts.

But the fact is, none of this matters very much as long as individuals in power – whether male or female – believe they have the right to take advantage of children. Those adults, who are certainly ill and just as certainly criminal, must be punished and they must be treated. Most importantly, the accused must be removed from the presence of children.

On a Sunday morning news show, it was reported that an alleged victim of Sandusky’s has had to leave his school because of bullying. Why? Because, it was reported, the young male made allegations that have affected Penn State football.

In other words, this student allegedly suffered at the hands of Sandusky, and now he’s suffering again because he had the courage to do the right thing in reporting him. All because of a school community’s love affair with football. Talk about sad, and talk about emblematic of so many people’s priorities.

Only time will tell what becomes of Jerry Sandusky and the others complicit in the handling of this case. Only time will tell what will become of Sandusky’s alleged victims and the trauma from which they will likely suffer for the rest of their lives. One can only hope they will receive the counseling so essential to healing from abuse.

Will they ever forget what allegedly happened? Never. Will they heal? Hopefully. Bringing Sandusky to justice will be a huge start. So, too, will remembering that above all, victims of sexual abuse are the ones who really suffer.

Football programs get a fresh start all the time – just ask any team that’s been subject to NCAA penalties over the years. The ones who really need a fresh start – through compassion and support – are the kids over whom the Penn State football program took priority for far too long.

— Special to The Press Herald