Sandusky's Conviction, Appeal, and A Template for Change

Sandusky's Conviction, Appeal, and A Template for Change
Former Assistant Penn State Coach Jerry Sandusky is serving a 30-to-60 year sentence for abusing boys on the campus of Penn State. He has yet to admit wrongdoing.

This morning, in my sports commentary on WRLR 98.3 FM (, I said the following:

"On (Former Penn State Assistant Coach) Jerry Sandusky’s conviction on 45 counts of abuse: if the NCAA does not adopt stringent policies  about screening and reporting coaches, they are no better than the Catholic church when it comes to protecting young people from predators. The Sandusky case is a study in people losing their sense of mission and obligation to children.

From former Penn State President Graham Spanier to the late Joe Paterno, their inaction ruined countless lives and damaged Penn State’s reputation beyond repair. This is an opportune time for the governing sports bodies at every level to adopt measures that will forever keep sexual predators away from children.

And if anyone ever feels the urge to quote, "horse around" with children, I suggest a reality check that would involve serious counseling and staying away from playgrounds. Use Sandusky as your example of what can happen. He’s reportedly on suicide watch in prison." (though the prison  says this is just precautionary)

I despair as I write this for Jerry Sandusky, who, despite facing possibly 400 years in prison, appears that he still didn't 'get it."  His lawyers are filing an appeal for "improper representation," based on their assertion that his attorney talked to the media and allowed Sandusky to do the same, and that the six month time frame they had to prepare a case was inadequate.

They further assert that the infamous NBC News interview conducted by Bob Costas was edited in such a way that Sandusky appeared to hesitate and very slowly seemed to ponder the question when asked if he were sexually attracted to children, which sealed his guilt for the millions who watched.

All of these are really just technicalities in the real question at hand: Did he abuse children? He was tried by a jury of his peers, and found guilty on 45 of the 48 counts. In some ways, I thought it would have been a good idea to put him on the stand during his trial. I would have liked to know specific definitions of "horsing around," and what he considered "play" with a child. And if it were appropriate to shower with children and cavort naked with them.

Not in my neighborhood. I took swimming lessons year-round, and never saw even one teacher or swimming coach naked.  I have no memories of inappropriate touches, nor of anyone "horsing around" with me. As far as I was concerned, they had their own facilities.

It wouldn't surprise me if Sandusky had endured the same behavior himself as a child. He hasn't said that, but what feels environmentally normal to each and every one of us is what we grew up with, dysfunctional, harmful, or not.

That said, this is an opportune teaching moment for all those who care enough about children to want to intervene in their lives and make them better.  Compensation for the victims from the flush, well-endowed Penn State University is likely to be very generous, but doesn't provide protection for anyone else. And this is not about money. It is about changing a culture. 

At the time of Joe Paterno's funeral, I had written a series of suggestions that would allow environmental and social change to begin. They bear repeating.

"For the 60 years he worked for Penn State, I believe there is a way to save his legacy for the future. It's just up to his family to put such a rehabilitation effort in place. And it involves becoming pro-active advocates for victims of child abuse.

I would suggest to the Paterno family that they come out as advocates for the victims of abuse. Paterno already has a statue and a building named for him. How about another building--a"Paterno Center for Healing" where the following could take place:

  • In connection with the spiritual center, the Paterno Center could employ counselors where both students and community could come for private counseling.
  • On-campus and off-campus abuse can be confidentially reported and investigated.
  • The counselors could work in tandem with community agencies to ensure that each victim and family member would have a complete contiuum of care.
  • That this center would hold annual seminars on abuse awareness for coaches of all sports.

By becoming advocates for healing abuse, and for the victims who are saved from shame and pain, Paterno's legacy can be returned to something resembling its former luster.

As I said in my original story after the scandal broke, I know something about child abuse. I've worked in the field for 15 years. I write grant proposals, though, and am not a counselor. But I can say that the mission of all child welfare services is "to help and protect children." And across the Chicago metropolitan area, 24 hours a day, agencies receive calls...from teachers, friends, police officers, and abuse victims themselves.

When authorities are involved...children can be protected and lives can move forward. While the type of violence inflicted on children varies greatly, the common denominator among the calls made to nonprofit agencies, to the National Runaway Hotline, to DCFS, to hospitals and other caring and safe places is that someone cared enough, was daring enough, and had the moral cajones and conviction to make a call to authorities no matter what the cost to themselves. Most of these calls are made anonymously. That said, when a child is in danger, why would protecting your safety be so important?  Children are our future. Anything that is done to them now is reflected in the kind of adults they become. And that determines our country's future.

Intervention, as any social services professional will tell you, is the key to stopping destructive cycles of abuse. For example, had Sandusky been reported, he could have been brought tohavior justice. By now, he would have been a registered sex offender.

Let this Center for Healing be a leader in teaching coaches and park district employees across the country what is considered "good touch" and "bad touch." If Sandusky considered what he termed "horseplay" to be normal, what other kinds of behavior have our children endured? That is why each school, and every community, needs to step up and enforce laws regarding behavior around children.

There are stringent rules surrounding abusive and exploitative behavior throughout the United States that govern educational facilities, nonprofit agencies, park distict sports teams, scouting organizations, and other places where children and adults meet. Background checks are mandatory, as are fingerprinting, for all those working with children, at least in Illinois.

Yet, many slip from the cracks, because abuse goes unreported. For example, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has an abuse hotline number on its website. Though it may be too late for the victims of Jerry Sandusky, here's the number for future reference: Call 1-800-932-0313 to Report Child Abuse

The Paterno Center for Healing could become a standard-bearer in the recognition, prevention and treatment of abuse.  I call on the Paterno family and the new officials of Penn State to put this plan, or one like it, into action. And slowly, the devastating shame that will certainly have long-lasting repercussions for a once-proud institution will be lifted.  JoePa's statue will once again stand for honor and pride in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

But in the most important legacy of all, our children can be protected and safe from abuse.Parents will not have to fear what happens to their children in sports camps or in the classroom. There is no greater legacy we can provide to our children than for them to be safe, healthy, self-confident, and able to reach their potential as individuals.

Better yet, let's ALL be the resources:

Helpguide. org provides the following warning signs to look for in the sexual abuse of children:

  • Trouble walking or sitting.
  • Displays knowledge or interest in sexual acts inappropriate to his or her age, or even seductive behavior.
  • Makes strong efforts to avoid a specific person, without an obvious reason.
  • Doesn’t want to change clothes in front of others or participate in physical activities.
  • An STD or pregnancy, especially under the age of 14.
  • Runs away from home


Child Abuse Hotlines:

Child sexual abuse:

1-888-PREVENT (1-888-773-8368) Stop It Now

1-800-656-HOPE Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN



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