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Penn State's response to child sexual abuse: What about the victims?

Nov 11, 2011

by Lisa Rea

As the story comes out in more detail about the alleged sexual abuse of children by Jerry Sandusky, former assistant football coach at Penn State, the coverage of the story seems to be more about the actions of veteran coach Joe Paterno--his resignation or the university's decision to fire him.

That's not surprising given his long winning record as a coach and Penn State's reputation in the college football world. However, as a restorative justice expert and a practitioner who works with victims of violent crime, my concern turns to the victims.  As this New York Times story tells there are some eight boys who have been abused over a 15-year period of time according to Pennsylvania Attorney General Linda Kelly.  Since this story broke in recent days the focus has been on the following: 1) who knew what when, 2) when was coach Joe Paterno told, 3) how many others on staff at Penn State knew, 4) what level of detail was shared with university staff by the individual who first reported the alleged sexual abuse, and 5) did anyone go to the police with the information of possible sexual abuse against children? 

But who is asking about the children abused some 15 year ago? Who is shocked by the sexual abuse of a football coach from the perspective of the victims abused who are now much older than children? Who speaks for them? Our interest in this news story seems to more about watching  a college football icon fall from grace and resign or get fired than to see sexual abuse against children as anathema in our society wherever it is found. Sexual abuse of children is after all a crime. 

As some have started, including the New York Times, the similarity between this alleged sexual abuse at Penn State and the sexual abuse cases in the Catholic Church first erupting in the U.S. in 2001 is obvious and worrisome. Often true in so many clergy abuse cases in the Catholic Church we have learned that the actions of the abusers were hidden from authorities and worse the abusers have often been moved from church parish to parish once Catholic church officials learned of the behavior.  This does not seem to be the case with Penn State's Jerry Sandusky but far too many knew that possible sexual abuse had occurred for many years against children yet no one stopped it. No one seemed to follow up once the abuse was discovered and reported inside the university. In both cases, no one went to the police. 

As we know with the Catholic Church there is no acknowledgement by the Vatican that law enforcement has any power or authority whatsoever over the actions of the church and its priests no matter what they are doing. The Catholic Church is sovereign---we are told. Maybe Penn State considered itself to be sovereign as well regardless of possible criminal actions taken by a former assistant football coach.

The effect these cases should have on us as we learn more is to be very concerned and, I hope, angry. Sexual abuse committed against children, or adults, is horrific. Not punishing these acts is worse. In the case of Penn State please don't let this be all about Coach Joe Paterno and his record as a winning football coach. I was encouraged to see that the Attorney General of Pennsylvania investigated this case against Sandusky. Attorney General Linda Kelly was courageous to go after the abuse especially at Penn State.  

What is needed now is to confirm the guilt of the abuser and, if proven, seek a criminal conviction against Sandusky. As in the hundreds of cases of abuse at the hands of Catholic clergy, these cases are criminal and convictions should be sought in each case worldwide.  There should be no statute of limitations. Those who enabled the abuse whether at Penn State or inside the Catholic Church should be held accountable under law. Someone should be asking what about the victims. Restorative justice can apply here in this case with Penn State, as I have always believed it could apply to every case of clergy abuse of children wherever that abuse has taken place. 

That does not mean a slap on the wrist or the resignation, or firing, of a beloved football coach.  The application of restorative justice means accountability and it means responding to the needs of the victims now---even 15 years later.

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Laura Leah
Laura Leah says:
Nov 13, 2011 08:36 PM

Hardly a restorative approach to condemn in this way. Almost all abusers have also been abused as well in their early years. Forgiveness offers everything we need. That comes upon acknowledgement of wrongdoing,seeking to make things right, right action and reconciliation with self and others. Punishing and revenge just keep the cycle of harm going. Kindness, not more suffering will bring health to victims, and we're all.

lisa rea
lisa rea says:
Nov 14, 2011 04:08 PM

Laura, interesting response to my column. As an advocate of restorative justice for 20 years I embrace RJ and believe it is applicable to all crimes. Saying that, however, does not mean the needs of crime victims are ignored as well as the need for offenders to be held accountable. As I said in my piece, restorative justice is not a slap on the wrist. When violent crimes occur in society we cannot look the other way. <br /> <br />Healing can occur in the lives of victims by offenders taking responsibility for their actions. That has not occurred yet in these cases at Penn State. Until the PA. Attorney General investigated these cases of nine children being sexually abused these cases were not fully brought to light. I still have hope that restorative justice can be applied but there are consequences to actions which should, and will, include criminal sanctions. <br /> <br />We who support restorative justice must ask how can victims be restored as much as possible? What are their needs? <br /> <br />Lisa Rea <br />Rea Consulting <br />Victims-Driven Restorative Justice <br />California <br />

Laura Steiman
Laura Steiman says:
Nov 17, 2011 10:25 PM

Hi Lisa. I completely agree that victims' needs must be a major consideration in any RJ events. I also need to remember though that the spiritual components, the 'roots' of restorative justice emphasize embracing the 'offender' who has acknowledged responsibility, and reintegrating him into the community as a contributing member. Stigmatizing through the early parts of that process can paralyze that return. Kindness and forgiveness by definition include awareness that harm has been done. Confession having been offered and the victims' circle of healing being restored the next step is to welcome the prodigal home. But an ethic of ultimate forgiveness makes it all possible. And offering that forgiveness meets the spiritual need of the victims as much as the offender.

Lisa Rea
Lisa Rea says:
Nov 19, 2011 02:28 AM

Laura, I understand your comments. I, too, am a person of faith which is why I am passionate about restorative justice. However, in the cases of sexual abuse of children (or adults) there can be no forgiveness if there is no direct offender accountable. <br /> <br />In the cases at Penn State the alleged child abuser to date has not admitted guilt. For restorative justice to apply, an offender must admit guilt. There could be no victim offender dialogue, for instance, if the offender did not take responsibility for his actions. <br /> <br />Forgiveness can perhaps come, and often does, but it does not come cheaply. I work with many victims of violent crime around the U.S., and beyond, who have forgiven their offenders. I have written about some of those stories here at rjonline.org. But many victims do not question that their offenders should serve a prison sentence of some sort. I leave those discussions, however, to the victims themselves. With the Penn State child abuse cases we must hear from the young men who were abused. I hope that there voices are heard because they must be heard. <br /> <br />Forgiveness, reconciliation and reintegration are important. To me, they are the hope that restorative justice provides. In these cases it is premature to short-circuit the legal process and to jump too quickly in a way that suggests dismissing the grave offenses. <br /> <br />Lisa Rea <br />Rea Consulting <br />Victims-Driven Restorative Justice <br />U.S. <br />&nbsp;&nbsp; <br />

Laura Steiman
Laura Steiman says:
Nov 17, 2011 10:27 PM

Hi Lisa. I completely agree that victims' needs must be a major consideration in any RJ events. I also need to remember though that the spiritual components, the 'roots' of restorative justice emphasize embracing the 'offender' who has acknowledged responsibility, and reintegrating him into the community as a contributing member. Stigmatizing through the early parts of that process can paralyze that return. Kindness and forgiveness by definition include awareness that harm has been done. Confession having been offered and the victims' circle of healing being restored the next step is to welcome the prodigal home. But an ethic of ultimate forgiveness makes it all possible. And offering that forgiveness meets the spiritual need of the victims as much as the offender.

Tiffany McGee
Tiffany McGee says:
Nov 25, 2011 07:29 PM

I'm sorry but you are ignorant. I was sexually abused as a child, by a close relative, and although I forgave him, that does not change the fact that sexually abusing a child is a CRIME and therefore must be punished in a court of law. Victims forgive so they may have closure on the situation, but the guilty party still owes a debt to society because they broke a law. Are you saying that if your child was raped, you would let your child forgive the person who did it and then you just let them walk away so they can do it to more innocent children??? That is horrific.

Laura Leah
Laura Leah says:
Nov 14, 2011 09:35 AM

Forgiveness has no statute of limitations but until it happens we are all and will remain victims.

Matt
Matt says:
Nov 17, 2011 10:26 PM

Lisa I want to begin by saying this is a very interesting article. When I read the opening paragraph I was not at all shocked by the fact that the story seemed to focus primarily on the coach’s departure from the school. <br /> <br />I am currently taking my first restorative justice class at Simon Fraser University and I have come to realize that our current justice system revolves around the offender. With all the attention on the offender, the victims and their needs are often ignored, much like what has happened in this story. <br /> <br />The amount of time and effort that is expended on convicting the coach should be matched by the time and effort spent on “healing” those who were abused 15 years ago. One possible way to “heal” the victims is through victim-offender mediation. This process brings the victims and offender together to discuss their own experiences of the event that took place between them. This process has been extremely effective in “healing” both the offender and the victim. It often times lead to the victim forgiving the offender for their actions. <br /> <br />Initially I was quite sceptical of RJ; however, after hearing from multiple individuals who have had first-hand experiences with RJ, my opinion is quickly shifting. RJ has changed the lives of many for the better. I believe those who were victimized 15 years would benefit from RJ tremendously, and therefore they should be given the opportunity to participate in RJ practices. <br />

Manny Minhas
Manny Minhas says:
Nov 21, 2011 12:10 PM

I believe RJ is the way but in this case I believe it would be hard for the victims to get closure or their needs to be met so they could move on with their lives. Some of the victims have been living with the fear of being sexually abused for almost 15 years, you cant make up 15 years of somsone life. This case of sexual abuse would not of even been brought up in the public if someones guilty mind did not finally get the best of them. People within the coaching staff knew what was going on but no one cared for it, they cared more for the university reputation, and not the victims. The only people who deserve any care is the victims but RJ is not going to bring back those years of their lives they have lost to being sexually abused. An ex-player was interviewed on Dr.Phil who explained that he was abused by his coaching staff, and his way of getting through was talking about to others but even 20 years later he still cant forgive or forget the fear he lived in. I am sure the victims of the Penn State case could talk about their problems and maybe it could ease some of that pain they have been holding onto, but people have to remember that the case was not even relevant unless an ex coach had brought up the matter, that is when people who had been abused spoke up and came out with it. RJ could help to an extent but nothing can replace the years these victims have lost of their lives.

lisa rea
lisa rea says:
Nov 22, 2011 07:18 PM

Responding to Manny's comments, in my work with victims of violent crime I have learned that it is never too late for victims to take part in restorative justice processes. The crime victims I have worked with most closely in the last 10 years have had a loved one murdered in their life. They tell the stories of healing and empowerment after participating in victim offender dialogue. <br /> <br />Is it for all victims? That is not for us to decide. However, what is important is that restorative justice should be made available to all victims. In the Penn State child abuse cases it is too early to know if restorative justice processes might be offered to the young men victimized. Should it be? I believe so. Without the culprit taking responsibility for his actions restorative justice cannot occur. But as I have said in my column, that is not necessarily the only sanction that should be applied. <br /> <br />Healing of some kind can occur in cases of violent crime but not unless the justice system offers it. All victims should have the &quot;right&quot; to participate in restorative justice. I am convinced that &quot;right&quot; is something that should be provided in our justice system(s). If legislation is needed then so be it. <br /> <br />Lisa Rea <br />Founder <br />Restorative Justice International <br />~global network @ linkedin.com <br />&nbsp;&nbsp;

Azalea
Azalea says:
Jan 16, 2012 03:47 AM

@Laura All I know, is I believe in restorative justice with all my heart but as a survivor of childhood sexual assault and rape as an adult, I struggle with restorative justice measures in such cases. It's not a matter of forgiveness, I can truly say now that I forgive the men who harmed me, but does that mean they should be free, not facing any serious punishment, able to harm other children or inflict acts of sexual violence on other women? What if this person isn't truly sorry and will likely re-offend? Very few child molestors and rapists can contain themselves from re-offending. Should I as a victim have to worry about my safety? What if this person continues to threaten my safety? Forgiveness or not, when you offend, esp in such a devastating way, destroying the very soul of an innocent child, you still need to face up to your actions and be accountable to them. My problem is that basically all of the stories Ive read of restorative justice measures being used in such cases literally made me sick to my stomach. Generally, it seems the victim is the one who will continue to suffer. Doesn't a child deserve protection from someone who harms them and to walk the streets worry free? What about abusive husbands who will stop at no end until they have killed their wives who have left them? <br /> <br />I struggle with this. The rights and feelings of victims need to be the main consideration. What about people who are too afraid to face their offender? The fact is that there are some people that can't be restored, some people lack empathy and conscience and are truly a danger to society. What do we do to deal with this type of thing? How do we keep people safe? <br /> <br />I read a story about a little girl who was raped by her father, his punishment was that he had to live in a shack in the family's yard and could not come into the home until his kids were grown and moved out. He was still allowed congegal visits with his wife. His poor daughter still had to live her life facing the man who should have protected her but instead raped her and abused her. She had to go to bed every night knowing the man who raped her was outside, and that there was always a possibility that he could choose to come back and do it again. <br /> <br />I just don't know... I love the idea of restorative justice, I'm an anarchist but I struggle very much with this aspect of it. I don't think I'll ever be able to agree. I don't know what the answer is, I don't feel its our current way of dealing with it, or the usual restorative justice measures Ive heard about.

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