We’re an offender-obsessed society, L. Edward Day writes, and that needs to change.
I work for Penn State. I live in State College. It’s been a bad week. Those of us who work here have had the same reaction to the horrifying allegations of child sex abuse by Jerry Sandusky, the former defensive coordinator of our football team, that everyone else has. We’ve felt the same shock, disgust, and anger. But on top of the those emotions, we also have a personal sense of betrayal, embarrassment, and deep concern because it happened here, at our university, in our town.
And it was our kids.
And that’s what I want to talk about. This nation is having half of a conversation. The focus of the discussion has been on the perpetrator and those who did not do enough to stop him. The kids, though, aren’t there.
I’ve watched hours of television’s talking heads, from the legal experts on the news networks to the endless parade of college football analysts and players on ESPN, and the pattern is clear. Each one looks slightly downward and says something like, “First, I want to express my sadness and prayers for the victims.” Then, they look back up to camera and spend the rest of their time in vitriolic talk about who should go to prison and who should get fired, about who was legally guilty and who was morally flawed.
I’ve read newspaper columns, blog posts, discussion forums, and Facebook posts about what should happen to Sandusky, Joe Paterno, former university president Graham Spanier, and other Penn State administrators. I’m not sure I’ve seen an entire column inch devoted to the needs of the victims. The victims aren’t really a part of the public conversation. They’re the side show, just the stuff left behind by the people we really want to talk about, the people we want to hate.
Even when America’s favorite silly pop psychologist, Dr. Phil, showed up on CNN in the coverage of Joe Paterno’s firing, victims were given short shrift. He instead spent his time warning people how to spot sexual predators by looking for people who show too much interest in children, a segment which accomplished nothing beyond making youth workers everywhere the subject of paranoid fantasies. (I used to coach my kid’s soccer team. Thanks, Phil, for making me a suspect.)
Everyone has a plan for what we should do to everyone who was involved, no matter how tangentially, with one glaring exception. No one has a plan for the people who were hurt.
As a society, we’ve already committed ourselves to paying hundreds of thousands of dollars, likely more, to investigate, try, incarcerate, and probably provide treatment for Sandusky. Penn State as an institution has already spent thousands of dollars reviewing the actions of administrators, determining to fire its iconic coach and president for their perceived moral failings in addressing the crimes. And it has committed itself to spend thousands more on a special investigative committee..
But for treatment for a 10 year-old boy who was raped in the shower?
Not a friggin’ dime.
Not from us.
Not from you.
Not from anyone.
This is the true moral failing, folks, and we’re all guilty. We have an obsession with offenders in this country. It doesn’t matter what the crime is. The justice system is completely offender centered. We spend our time, and our money, on the bad guys, arguing over what we should do to them, how we should do it, and for how long. We don’t give jack to the victims except a slight downward glance and a prayer. The victims aren’t a part of our discussions, they’re not the recipients of our funds. We want to hate, hit, and hurt those who have hurt others. I suppose that’s understandable. We don’t even know how to talk about those who have been hurt. I think that should be unacceptable.
It’s time we changed the national discussion. It’s time we changed our priorities. It’s time we talked about justice in terms of how we helped those who hurt, not how hard we hit back at the people who hurt them. True justice can’t be focused solely on retribution for the offender. True justice has to focus on the harm they caused.
What can you do? First, change the conversation. The next time you hear someone say, “I think [Person X] should rot in hell,” just ask them, “What would you do for the victims?” They’ll get quiet, but you didn’t ask the question to shut them up. You asked to get them thinking. Let them think about it for a bit. It’s not something we’re used to thinking about.
Need some talking points? As victims of child sexual abuse grow up, many suffer psychological problems such as depression, anxiety, or the whole host of symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress syndrome. They tend to have poorer physical health, eating disorders, problem with relationships, and suffer from sexual dysfunctions ranging from lack of interest to compulsive engagement in sexual activity. Accepted treatment protocols often go beyond what is supported by typical medical insurance programs. We’ve left these victims on their own. How would you change that?
When you find out someone is a victim, learn to listen without judgment. The sad irony is many survivors feel deep guilt for the events. Although they were the victims and not perpetrators, many feel responsible for what happened to them and become ashamed to admit it occurred or, in therapy, often downplay the abuse and focus on other symptoms. Admitting the abuse can often be especially difficult for men who are expected to be in control of their environments. Make it okay to speak out. The victims who testified in the grand jury proceedings against Sandusky and who will testify again at the trial will be courageous young men. But, hell, let’s face ourselves. If it’s take courage to speak out about this, it’s because the rest of us have created an environment that makes it difficult. Change that.
And, for God’s sake, knock off the “they’re permanently scarred” and “their lives are ruined” crap. We have this odd demand in our culture that victimhood should be permanent, that once victimized, the victims should adopt that role as their identity and display their pain to us daily. The truth is, we want that only to justify our continued hatred of the offender. When you do that, though, you’re actively continuing the victimization. You’re denying those people their right and their opportunity for a full and fulfilling life. If we really gave a damn about the victims, we’d allow them to heal. Sure, they’ll carry scars, but there are a lot of NFL running backs with scars on their knees and they run just fine. Most victims of child abuse recover and live fine lives. They don’t forget, but they move on. People go through horrible things. People recover from horrible things. Saying otherwise helps create the environment that makes speaking out difficult. Keep the sensitivity to their pain—that’s a good thing—but let them heal.
Finally, remember that when you look downward and say you feel bad for the victims, then look up and shout for someone’s head, you haven’t done a damn thing for the people who were hurt. If you really feel bad for them, put your money where your mouth is. The criminal justice system is designed to make you pay for the offender, but you have to help the victims yourself. Pull out your checkbook and fire one off to a group that helps provide services to victims of child sexual abuse, organizations like Childhelp or the National Children’s Alliance. Better yet, find a local group if you can. Your donation doesn’t have to be large, but if everyone who spent the last week screaming for someone to be fired sent a small donation to one of these groups, victims around the country would get the help they need.
C’mon man. Do something.
The GMP on Penn State:
Paterno and Pedestals, Julie Gillis
When the Game Becomes Religion, Gary Percesepe
Male Lust Arrives in Happy Valley, Tom Matlack
Destroying a Young Boy’s Soul, Ken Solin
Power Is at the Core of Sexual Harassment, Mervyn Kaufman
Men, Monsters, and the Media, Nicole Johnson
Loyalty and Responsibility at Penn State, Andrew Smiler
Jerry Sandusky and Penn State: A Familiar Story, Sophia Sadinsky
I Failed, Rick Morris
Sandusky-ed, Tim Green
Penn State: What Are We Talking About?, L. Edward Day
We (Still) Are, Cameron Conaway
Cognitive Dissonance and the Sandusky Situation, Justin Cascio
Start Snitching, David Perez