Last year, the documentary “Happy Valley” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. This award-winning film examines the abuse scandal at Penn State, the environment in which it happened, and the emotional aftermath felt by the community. Aside from offering a ground level view of the events and attitudes surrounding an event that shook the foundation of the Centre County community, the film offers a tremendous opportunity to talk openly about child sexual abuse.
On April 16, Darkness to Light (D2L) and the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) held a special screening of “Happy Valley,” followed by a discussion panel including Dr. Regina Benjamin, 18th U.S. Surgeon General, Jay Paterno, son of the late Joe Paterno, and Howard Long, CEO of the Centre County YMCA.
Over 200 people gathered on the MUSC campus to view the film and learn about Centre County’s prevention efforts over the last four years.
Highlights from the event include:
Jay Paterno said that before this experience, the Centre County community was naïve to the reality of abuse. Now, he says he talks to kids about the proper roles of adults within their lives. He learned the signs, and he looks for them. As an advocate, he champions the role of child sexual abuse prevention within organizations that serve youth.
One of the most compelling stories of the night came from Howard Long of the Centre County YMCA. Following an early Stewards of Children training facilitated by the Y, seven teachers disclosed stories of sexual abuse as children. Howard says that experience provided a strong reminder of why training is necessary and says if he could tell all communities one thing, it would be get trained to prevent, recognize, and respond to child sexual abuse.
Before the Sandusky scandal, Centre County had no child advocacy center. Children who were abused were put through a gauntlet of interviews, required to share their trauma five separate times to five separate entities. Now there is an advocacy center that is trained to work with families and legal entities to ensure children are protected while justice is served.
“Happy Valley” portrays a community that was ill-prepared to handle the issue of child sexual abuse – one that through its naivety created an environment that allowed Jerry Sandusky’s actions to go unchecked. However, the film concentrates on the “football culture” of Penn State, nearly to the exclusion of the actual abuse.
Throughout the documentary, child sexual abuse is positioned as either a product of hero worship by an athletics-focused community, or something that is inevitable and unavoidable. In truth, it is neither.
While Jerry Sandusky certainly exploited the hero worship of the community, that story is hardly unique to the Penn State or athletics communities. One in 10 children are victims of child sexual abuse. It is everywhere, and serial perpetrators are skilled at finding the niche that allows them unrestricted access to children. This is why it’s vitally important to have the knowledge, tools, and empowerment to both prevent and respond to abuse.
Child sexual abuse can be prevented, it can be stopped, and it can be overcome. Following Sandusky’s 2012 conviction on 45 counts of child sexual abuse, the Centre County community made a decision to learn from the past. County-wide, training initiatives are thriving and growing.
Unfortunately, the Jerry Sandusky story is not new – it is a story among thousands that play out on a much less public stage. In 90% of cases, child sexual abuse victims are victimized by someone they know and trust. This issue exists far beyond Penn State, Centre County, and certainly football. This is a universal issue. And the only way to truly make an impact is to follow the example of Centre County and place the focus where it really needs to be – on protecting kids and preventing history from repeating itself.
3 responses to “It’s Not About Football: Why the discussion around Jerry Sandusky, Joe Paterno, and Penn State needs to change”
Thank you for this piece – however, you fail to state anywhere in this post that Sandusky was an Agent of the County by virtue of his status as an Adoptive/Foster parent and his position with the Second Mile – a licensed children’s charitable non-profit in the state of Pennsylvania.
A kids charity with oversight by the PA Office of Attorney General, ironically, whose masthead reads “Protecting Pennsylvania Families”. The same OAG that produced a wildly inflammatory Grand Jury Presentment that created a media firestorm. 3 principals have yet to set foot in the courtroom and experience their constitutional right to due process – the court of public opinion has already tried, convicted and incarcerated these men.
Sandusky was the founder, fundraiser and figurehead of a successful children’s charity, staffed with trained adults. He maintained a cushy, decades long relationship with surrounding Children & Youth Services, area public schools and HeadStart. He met weekly with 2 mandated reporters, one of which is a licensed child psychologist – the other held a teaching certificate in our state. Sandusky maintained clearance thru ChildLine right up until his arrest, even after complaints were escalated thru the system. The man was approved by 6 caseworkers and a PA judge. CYS placed scores of foster kids in his home.
And this was a “football” issue, how exactly?
Rather than using the term “naive” – how about you describe the fact that the very people we entrust to protect and serve kids in our state slapped the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval on a Preferential Child Sexual Offender? They provided a Cloak of Invisibilty and draped it over the shoulders of a pedophile. While the red flags of grooming and inappropriate behavior with clients (such as, but not limited to:) excessive one-on-one contact with clients, “contracts” with these minors , excessive gifts given without charity oversight, personal phone calls to clients , pulling Second Mile kids out of class in area public schools, constant sleepovers, lack of signed permission forms & waivers, etc were waving in the faces of these child welfare professionals, the charity CEO & his wife, school administrators, not a single one of them stopped to think – hey, this is a high profile adult, the face of kids charity, he is not following established rules when working with minors – we need to have a sit down and go over the ground rules and ensure they are followed to the letter SO EVERYONE IS PROTECTED.
To date, not a single child welfare professional that had a hand in this tragedy has been investigated.
Millions of dollars have been spent fighting a false narrative thrown out there by Louis Freeh, our Board of Trustees having given Freeh the matches and gasoline. The community has been scorched, reputations have been torched, and still the child welfare system that approved and applauded, embraced and encouraged a child sex offender has been utterly silent.
Not a single one of them has publicly stepped up to the microphone and said…”umm, I think we failed and here’s why”. I wonder how many of them will scramble for that same microphone to battle over a share of that $48 million?
What’s even more distressing to me – not a single professional who placed a child in Sandusky’s car, referred a child to him to personally “mentor” or gave him access to children via the Second Mile has offered to reimburse what must be a HUGE expense on the Paterno Family to educate the nation, produce the Clemente, Berlin, King – Spalding & Thornburgh reports and reinforce the message to parents, grandparents and caregivers groups like Darkness2Light are so desparately trying to get out there.
I am truly disgusted at the crummy, corrupt politics swirling behind all this that went on in my state, I am aghast at our media bias, the lack of holding county & state public officials responsible, the vile, ugly, harassing, libelous statements made on social media and in social settings to anyone associated with Penn State by utter strangers that can’t even name a single Penn State Trustee or identify a child welfare professional attached to this story.
Thank you for reading my rant. I am tired of being called a “child rape enabler” when I don’t care for football, don’t live in the same zip code, but have made an effort to learn the facts and do have a lot of questions that have gone unanswered these past 3 years.
Wendy, thank you for expressing my concerns, too. I heard Matthew talk in Syracuse recently. He couldn’t tell his story as a child. That’s the point. The system is supposed to give these children voices and the system was silent. Your points are HUGE. Jerry groomed everyone involved. I applaud Matthew for his decision to take this public. I wish him continued healing as his truth find a voice. His story will evolve as his memory and self confidence improve. He will reclaim his voice. I can only hope this is a wake up call to those working in the child protective system, schools, and charities- the rules exist for a reason.