Penn State brings together a community of experts and survivors to talk about prevention and recovery from sexual abuse.
As a visitor to State College Pennsylvania a couple of weeks ago, I was deeply moved, by both the awareness of their tragedy and their determination to heal. The community showed a dogged commitment to squarely face and to nurture a path to recovery from the chaos that’s surfaced since the arrest a year ago of former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky on multiple charges of sexual abuse.
Over two days, Penn State University presented an impressive array of national experts, researchers and survivors to talk about the potential for prevention, healing and recovery from the effects of sexual abuse. The symbolism of the mega-storm Sandy raging outside the conference center and up and down the East Coast wasn’t lost on any of the nearly 500 people from the State College community and from across the country who attended.
As an outsider, the lessons were rich and the insights humbling.
What struck me most deeply were the similarities in experience I heard again and again from members of the Penn State community and the pain I witnessed during my 15 years as a child-protection social worker within families where children were sexually abused.
Widespread misconceptions about the dynamics of sexual abuse seem to inevitably lead to self-righteous critiques from outsiders against anyone even remotely involved with the abusive person. Often, efforts to take corrective steps aren’t seen as genuine. Even the brutal self criticism of those who failed to protect an injured child—which sometimes can be even harsher than the external judgments—do little to calm the rage and disdain from those of us standing on the sidelines.
I heard stories over lunch from Penn State staff members who’d never even met Jerry Sandusky who were subjected to repeated tirades, insults and threats because of their connection to the institution. They were deemed guilty by association, casualties of “us and them” thinking.
Most people now consciously know that the old notions about “stranger danger” are not an effective basis for protecting children against sexual abuse. Still, the emotional bias persists. We want it to be true that no one we know would abuse a child. We desperately want them to be “strangers.” But more often than not, it’s someone we care for, perhaps admire or even love.
Nearly all adults believe they would recognize and immediately act against any sign of sexual abuse against a child. But research and the experience of millions of survivors of abuse show that belief simply doesn’t reflect how people actually behave.
Like those at Penn State and Second Mile and the personal friends of Jerry Sandusky, who overlooked his warning-sign behaviors over the years, most of us would likely succumb to the easier explanations for concerning behaviors that ultimately fail to protect anyone.
And here’s the irony—one that I witnessed so often in my work with families: our understandable anger, our unremitting contempt for those who failed to protect the children who were abused, actually can make it more difficult for a survivor or a family or a community to heal from the injuries.
Here was the Penn State community working to identify and to understand its failings and to take responsibility for the harm that individuals experienced. As one who believes in firm accountability for actions or inactions that hurt children, I’m not easily snowed. I was impressed during my two days in State College with the Penn State community’s promise to acknowledge and learn from its mistakes and to share those lessons with others who are in a position to prevent further harm and move toward healing.
But it was clear that one of the biggest hurdles to recovery that the Penn State community continues to face are the waves of shame that have been heaped upon it by the outside world.
Yes, anger is understandable. Accountability is critical. Still, healing must be the ultimate goal. And in my experience, shame is never an effective tool for healing.
Related post: Worse Than Denial: Institutional Betrayal
Photo credit: Flickr / Hannaford