The death of the longtime college football coach Joe Paterno has left many with conflicted emotions. Some would only like to think of all the good he has done in his life. Others can only see how many children he turned a blind eye to – who could have been saved had he chosen a different path. But the majority of people fall somewhere in the middle and are confused about how they should feel.
It’s always very sad when someone succumbs to an illness. But the timing of Joe Paterno’s death gives cause to wonder if he died of more than just cancer but also of a broken heart by the child abuse scandal at the center of his beloved Penn State.
And if adults are confused by how to feel, imagine the children and adult survivors of Sandusky’s abuse and how they are feeling right now. When a child is abused, they are often made to feel responsibility for their abuse because that is what a “savvy” child predator wants them to feel. Predators do this to ensure a child/teen’s silence. Remember, statistics show 90% of the time a child is sexually abused by someone they know and 68% of the time it is a family member.
Often the messages being told to the child/teen by the predator/”trusted adult” will scare a victim into silence, such as:
- “Don’t tell”
- “You will hurt our family if you tell”
- “I will go to jail”
- “I will do this to your sibling”
- “You misunderstood”
- “You enjoyed it”
- “I do this because I love you”
There are so many more confusing statements meant to make a child/teen feel guilt, shame, embarrassment, and even confusion as though they in some way caused this to happen. They are manipulated into feeling they are at fault, all of which leads to not telling. But one of the most important things to remember is that even though this person can be a monster part of the time, the other part of the time the child may love this person or at least depend on them. Feelings are always so black or white and because of that, we can all (adults and children) have many feelings at one time. Even though the child wants the abuse to stop, they often love (need) their dad, mom, brother, cousin, uncle, favorite coach, mentor, etc. – whoever is doing the abuse. It’s so confusing for a child…let’s face it…it’s confusing for adults.
We need to be careful as we write and share your stories about the man, Joe Paterno – who was just a man who did good things and bad things in his life. Our comments have an impact on the survivors who are still living and still dealing with the trauma of child abuse he let continue. So let’s learn from his dreadful mistake. He chose to protect himself and his institution rather than to protect children and deal with the “fall out” that reporting sexual abuse would have caused.
But imagine the legacy he would have left if he had done the right thing at the time? He would be remembered as the most winning college football coach of all time plus a huge advocate for child abuse prevention and intervention. Perhaps by doing the right thing at the right time the school – and therefore other schools – would have put into place more stringent guidelines to keep children safe and create an environment of empowerment for people to speak out about suspected abuse in their own places of work.
I too am conflicted by his death. I know Joe Paterno did many positive things in his life, yet I am horrified by what he allowed to happen at Penn State. Although we cannot turn back the clock and undue what has been done – we can move forward and make changes by educating adults about what to do when a disclosure has been made.
We want adults to also think – what do you want YOUR legacy to be? However you want to be remembered, you now have the chance to make changes…Are you doing good? Can you do better? Are you not doing anything? Joe Paterno said it himself, he wishes he did more. And the point of this blog is when someone dies it is an opportunity for each of us to take stock of our own lives…of our own legacy and start doing and being that person you want people to remember.