Even after 36 years in the field, Jinger Robins, chairwoman of the Children’s Advocacy Centers of Georgia, said she still feels sorrow whenever a story such as the Penn State scandal breaks.
“However, through all the sorrow and sadness, I am not shocked, and I hate that fact because, unfortunately, cases like Penn State occur every day all over the United States behind closed doors in homes, daycares, protected organizational structures, colleges, schools, churches and even nonprofits,” Robins said.
In 2008, there were 3.3 million reports of children being abused or neglected in the U.S. Of those, 9 percent were sexual abuse, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky is accused of child sex abuse against needy children he met through a charity he started for children.
Child sex abuse is a topic close to the heart of Thomas Scales, executive director of VOICE Today, a Marietta nonprofit dedicated to breaking the silence and cycle of child sexual abuse. Over the weekend, it conducted a prayer breakfast for victims and survivors of child sex abuse at Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in east Cobb.
Scales, 68, said he was the victim of child sex abuse as boy growing up with his family in West Virginia. He said the perpetrators were family members, priests, strangers and a Boy Scout leader.
“I was sexually molested by eight different men, and held down and raped by a young woman before I was 13,” Scales said.
“I did not understand what happened to me until I was in my early 50s, and I did not speak publically about it until three years ago. I lived with rage for decades and at some point, I saw all the damage being done to all these children, and I saw all these other adult survivors while participating in a support group … and I said I’ve got to do something about this.”
Lorraine Fast is co-founder of Dallas, Ga.-based Kingdom Communities Inc., which works with families and youth in crisis, including child sex abuse. She said perpetrators often become trusted people in the lives of the children they abuse. Statistically, 98 percent of victims know their perpetrator, she said.
“Children keep it a secret for many of these same reasons. But, more than that, they are often threatened by the pedophile with harm to them or a loved one,” said Fast, author of “The Friendly Enemy,” a children’s workbook that teaches the difference between being loved and abused.
“When someone does suspect that a child is being sexually abused, or if they actually witness this crime, most people hesitate to report it in part because they are frightened and embarrassed to come forward and talk about it. Or, as I believe in the case of Penn State, there are many repercussions to this kind of disgrace. Often the sexual (deviant) is a member of the family, a trusted friend or a pillar of the community.”
In 2002, a graduate assistant told a Pennsylvania grand jury that he saw Sandusky sodomize a young boy in the Penn State football locker room showers, after which he told Paterno, and Paterno then told his superiors.
Since the publication of the grand jury report, Mike McQueary, now an assistant Penn State football coach, has been criticized for not immediately contacting police, which he now reportedly says he did.
“Football teams are taught to protect each other and to show loyalty to the team,” said Dr. Paul Wolpe, director of Emory University’s Center for Ethics.
“In a larger context, Penn State is the largest employer in the area, and the athletic program brings in millions of dollars. So all the incentives were there to protect the team and the university over the child.”
Until moving three years ago to Atlanta, Wolpe spent the majority of his life in Pennsylvania, which he described as the “land of Joe Paterno.” While Paterno fulfilled a legal obligation to report a possible serious crime, his ethical obligations, given someone of his stature and power, were not fulfilled, Wolpe said.
“People can reasonably disagree about where certain ethical obligations lie,” he said. “But virtually no one disagrees that if one sees a child being molested that the person has an ethical obligation to put a stop to it, not just in the immediate case, but also through preventing reoccurrence. Not making sure that Sandusky was in the hands of the police, to determine whether he was guilty and a threat, was an abdication of ethical responsibility and perhaps of legal responsibility as well.”
Robins said she doesn’t believe parents should ever hand over complete responsibility for their children to others.
“Parents need to be aware that the ultimate responsibility for their child’s safety belongs to them,” she said. “We have to learn the balance of a healthy respect for those who care for children but always, as protective parents maintain a watchful eye so that we, as responsible adults, to the best of our abilities, own the responsibility of our children’s safety at all times.”