The only way to combat a pandemic tolerance of sexual misconduct, Paul Gagne writes, is asking the tough questions, holding accountability, and being vigilant.
Disgust and devastation. These are natural reactions to an incident where an adult in a position of power and trust forces children to engage in sexual acts. Both in 2000 and 2002 Pennsylvania State University employees reported witnessing sexual assaults on campus to their supervisors. Like many, I am furious that, despite knowledge of these assaults, the school allowed former Defensive Coordinator Jerry Sandusky University-owned field space to continue to run the Second Mile football camps that he used to prey on his victims until 2008.
The one emotion in the public’s reaction that I do not share is shock. I am not shocked that, once again, a man in power used abused his station over the powerless. I am also not shocked that his supervisors deemed serious consequences unnecessary. For me this is simply another example of outdated ideals about fraternity: the fraternity that, from some arcane sense of loyalty, led to the systematic protection of a child molester. This happened in the Catholic Church when known molesters were simply moved from church to church by Vatican officials. It happened in USA swimming where insufficient background checks enabled coaches suspected of inappropriate behavior to move from club to club, victimizing their swimmers at every stop. Once again, now at Penn State, protecting the reputation of an institution and taking care of a former devoted employee were deemed more valuable than protecting innocent children from a monster.
When will we as men stop being surprised and start being vigilant? As we have seen in the Catholic Church, USA swimming, and now one of the most respected and legendary programs in all of the NCAA, a lack of vigilance—whether it be active cover-ups, lazy background checks, or ignored reporting—leads to more victims. The failure of men in power to take action has lead to more young lives being horribly and irrevocably changed. We cannot continue to dismiss these incidences as rare occurrences or the actions of a few sick people. If the administrators at Penn State had not been so quick to dismiss the information of these demented acts as unimaginable maybe they would all still have their jobs, and Sandusky wouldn’t have been able to victimize children for eight subsequent years.
As the son of a sexual assault victim advocate, I was raised with much more knowledge and awareness of the prevalence of molestation than most people. Even so, when I was 16, I was still shocked when sexual assault charges were brought against one of my high school math teachers. Before the incident came to light, I had heard talk of his “creepy” and “inappropriate” behavior, but had always dismissed it as a harmless guy being awkward. However, when I heard he had actually touched girls during class, on their breasts or behinds, and was in possession of child pornography, I was shaken to the core. I could not understand how a teacher could violate his students in such a fundamental way and I was wracked with guilt that I had so readily dismissed his prior behavior.
I could not believe I had been so blind. My blindness was made easy because we live in a culture that encourages us to believe the this-could-never-happen-to-us myth of sexual abuse. I allowed myself to excuse the inappropriate behavior I saw as harmless actions that were understandable for any man. I quickly brushed off his flirty exchanges with my female classmates as an awkward guy talking to pretty girls—I would have felt awkward, why shouldn’t he?
It was not until later that I realized that because the girls were 14 and 15 they were not just pretty girls to him like they were to me. They were children, and worse, his trusting students. He had crossed a clear moral boundary by viewing children as sexual objects and, by crossing it, he had transformed from teacher to predator. After these allegations against my teacher came out, I realized that flirting with children has nothing to do with being a man; it only has to do with being a pedophile. I was lucky in some ways because I was able to see the falsehood of the myth when I was 16 and that has led me to be vigilant in any situation where children are vulnerable. Clearly much of the country has yet to figure this out.
The revelation about the systematic molestation that thrived in the Catholic Church should have been the incident that snapped the country out of comfortable blindness and made us all come to grips with the reality that pedophilia is a prevalent, non-discriminating occurrence. In my very Catholic extended family, everyone knew someone who was a victim of clergy abuse. I thought such a fact would be the wake-up call that we all needed to start taking child predators more seriously. But yet again, USA swimming’s lax background checks allowed several suspected coaches to move from club to club collecting victims. Here we are again. An all-male hierarchy covered up the actions of a sexual predator, slapped him on the wrist, and allowed him to continue abusing children. The Catholic Church, USA swimming, and Penn State failed to protect members or guests of their communities who trusted the institution and its affiliated educators.
We need to stop turning a blind eye to this horrible epidemic just because it is too awful to think about. We need talk about child predators, acknowledge their prevalence, and do everything we can to stop them. As a registered USA swimming coach and an employee of an NCAA affiliated athletic department, I want answers from the institutions as to what steps they are actively taking to ensure that negligence in addressing sexual assault and pedophilia no longer occur. Many will accept the firing of four Penn State administrators, including the winningest football coach in NCAA history, as resolution to the institutional failure. It will be easy to move on, forgetting the story once again, dismissing the possibility that it could affect them. Most will not see how the failures at Penn State are not unique, that this is a problem facing all organizations that work with children.
How many more times will sports and other fraternities choose to protect their own at the cost of protecting the innocent? When will we stop turning a blind eye to the most disgraceful and demented of our gender’s capabilities? Until we do, sexual offenders can continue to seek out positions where they can rely on protection from their acts.