Penn State: A Catalyst for Change?

As you may have read and heard, a devastating set of events occurred at the Penn State University campus this past week. Included were allegations and hearings about blatant sexual abuse of children by a football coach, a variety of powerful reactions by the student body and alumni, outrage and outcries directed at Penn State, the firing of the president and head football coach, emergence of civil suits, and a new awareness of the horrendous impact of sexual abuse to children.

Penn State’s State of Alarm

Jerry Sandusky
Jerry Sandusky escorted by police. Photo courtesy of Andy Colwell/The Patriot-News, via Associated Press provided to the New York Times.

One of the trustees of Penn State University called this “Penn State’s 911.”  Although 3,000 lives were not lost, we do have at least 8 minor-age children who have reported incidents of sexual abuse as a result of their relationship with Jerry Sandusky. In light of what I have been discussing in this blog for the past months, I  think about the devastation that has been caused to these children and families. These violations have left them injured, traumatized, and emotionally and relationally damaged. Now, as a result of current news, they are probably overwhelmed with the memories of such travesties inflicted on them. The more these memories resurface, the more they will re-traumatize. The victims will need some significant help for healing and recovery.

As we witnessed Jerry Sandusky being led away in handcuffs, we most likely reacted with intense disdain and hatred for his alleged and indecent acts with children. Those of us who are trauma-informed and know the research behind why sexual offenders do what they do naturally would ask, “What happened to him as a child?”

A powerful symbol: the reaction by coaches, players and fans

The scene that I most appreciated was when players and coaches from both Nebraska and Penn State knelt and prayed for the abused children and victims while over 100,000 fans quietly watched with sympathy, empathy and a huge sense of discomfort. That is not something they were used to seeing from a fan’s point of view.

I thought about that image as symbolic for this issue. Maybe this is yet another wake-up call…a whole stadium, fan base and prominent university community was literally brought to its knees by the issue of child abuse and traumatization. What a powerful image—and hopefully one that will leave lasting impressions on us all.  Can this be a catalyst for true change?

A wake-up call on behalf of abused children?

Thousands of children are abused physically, sexually and emotionally in this country every year.

There is such a bigger picture here. Thousands of children are abused physically, sexually and emotionally in this country every year. In almost all cases, the victims are vulnerable and unable to protect themselves.  They grow into adulthood with the scars and wounds of that child abuse which will impact nearly every aspect of their lives. All child abuse is tragic. We each should be on our knees on behalf of our abused children.

One consequence of this sequence of events is that some Pennsylvania state legislators are introducing more significant laws about reporting child sexual abuse. I do appreciate the intent of such an effort. Hopefully, something will happen to mandate that acts as blatant as these will be required to be reported.

However, a greater deterrent could be if we as a national community share a common stewardship for the care of our children. Maybe if what was going on in Jerry’s Sandusky’s life as a child (or at the first event of what he was allegedly doing with a child) would have been reported, this could have been stopped and other children would have been spared.

Prioritizing the protection of our children

Thinking about the sexual abuse of children as life-traumatizing should help us understand that we cannot allow these types of events to continue. We need to have a shared value for protecting the lives of children that overrides other personal, political or organizational agendas.

Do not give up
Even if our laws were changed to increase reporting, we do not have the resources in our systems to even begin to care for all the children and families who need our help.

But prevention is only one aspect of dealing with child abuse. Some of the same people who diligently express outrage about child abuse are also in positions in which they can advocate for and offer therapeutic help to victimized children and families.

The economic crisis has taken a toll on our whole system of caring for children. Even if our laws were changed to increase reporting, we do not have the resources in our systems to even begin to care for all the children and families who need our help. This is a difficult and emotionally charged issue, but we as a society have a long way to go to properly care for our children.

Maybe we can all be moved to get on our knees, not only by what has been happening to the victims in the Penn State case, but by what has been happening all over our country. Perhaps this is a catalyst to change on behalf of our children who only want the safety of a protected life or need the help of a trusted and qualified mentor. It is my hope that this can be the beginning of a new wave of support for those children who are victims of sexual abuse.  Let us all pray so!

Gerry Vassar, President/CEO, Lakeside Educational Network


  1. Jordan Denny

    Powerful message and call to action, Mr. Vassar.

    1. Gerry Vassar

      Thank you Jordan. We appreciate that you took time to share your thinking.

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