I’ve avoided writing about Sandusky. In fact, until very recently I’ve avoided reading or talking about Sandusky, too. As a survivor of a serial sex abuser, I know myself well enough to know that engaging the media coverage of the case with moderation and restraint would be a challenge for me. More often than not, I’m an all or nothing kind of guy, and doubly so when something strikes a raw nerve.
It was the release of the Freeh Report that tipped the scale for me. I work in Higher Ed, so reading an analysis of the institutional handling of the abuse seemed more like professional responsibility – particularly as my Twitter feed exploded with references to it from other student life folks. I downloaded and opened the file intending to read only the executive summary. A couple of hours later I closed the document having read every word.
What I appreciate about the document is that it takes a systematic approach and moves beyond suggesting Sandusky is an exceptional monster, and now that he is driven from our midst the kingdom is once again safe. That’s too often the underlying rhetoric. When my abuser was sentenced, I witnessed the grown men and women around me fist pumping, high fiving, and bear hugging as if we’d just won the state championship. We’d driven the devil out. The streets were safe again. I caught the eye of the other victim/survivors in the room. We were not so celebratory. This party had little to do with us.
So, acknowledging a larger systemic issue is an important step forward. It’s a far cry better than what we’ve seen from other institutions actively engaged in covering-up and sidestepping for the sake of avoiding bad press. I admit that as I read the report and noted the remarkable similarities with my own case, my immediate response was a reignited anger with the United Methodist Church for its mishandling of a string of warning signs and raised concerns about the man who abused me.
Better policies for response, better monitoring systems, better background checks, all of that matters. It’s crucially important that they are both put into place and utilized. But if the conservative response to serial sex abuse is a machismo laden witch hunt – “Let us reassert our masculine ideal of protector by running the monster out of the village” – then the liberal response may be to understand the abuser as tragically ill while still asserting that “someone must pay.” And so, we turn our attention to the leaders of institutions portrayed as cold and calculating in their privileging their own reputations over the safety and welfare of children in their communities.
Don’t get me wrong, I firmly believe that both individuals and institutions should be held accountable. I’ll never stand in the way of or speak out against either. I’m just concerned our drive to look for simple answers to the “Who’s to blame?” question is a pretty handy way for us to avoid taking responsibility for our participation in a culture that leaves so many young people vulnerable. If we really want to have a significant impact on ending child sexual abuse, here are three things we can do:
1. Get involved in the life of a young person. Over and over again, the story of victim/survivors of serial abusers begins with the absence of healthy men actively engaged in their lives. That’s not to say that abuse never happens to folks who have those relationships, but kids looking for an adult to connect with are more certainly more vulnerable to abusers.
2. Change our conversations about sex and sexuality. Sex abuse depends on shame in order to function. In environments where healthy conversations about the complexity of desire are met with appropriate emotional and physical boundaries between children and adults, it’s much harder for the culture of secrecy to grab hold. I am not suggesting that sexual abuse and sex are the same thing, but rather I suggest that when young people know what sex is it’s easier for them to understand what sex is not. That culture of shame gets even more complicated when boys abused by men have to struggle through additional layers of homophobia. Comprehensive sex education from birth through adulthood changes the climate of an institution — lets get into our churches, schools, community groups, and homes. It’s so much harder to count on the shadows of sexual shame to provide cover for predatory behavior when the lights have already been turned on and the shadows chased away.
3. Humanize those experiencing objectionable desire. When we acknowledge that there are folks who, for whatever reason, experience sexual desire directed towards children we create containers for those concerns to be dealt with. I can’t imagine how different my life would be if before he ever met me my abuser had encountered a pastor in whom he could confide. If he had been able to name his desire and be supported in working through the problematic drive, how different things might have been. Instead, in a church living under the shadow of sexual shame, all he could expect would be to be condemned and ostracized. We play a role in the making of the “monsters” we run out of town.
Sexual abuse often thrives in spaces where healthy intimate relationships are hard to come by. Like all violence, it’s primarily a relational issue. As my buddy Hugh often says, “God has a plan, and we’re it.”
The work is ours to do.