What Does the Sexual Assault at Penn State Mean For Me?

Like you, I was and continue to be horrified by the revelations of the sexual abuse of minor boys and the apparent cover-up (or fail to act?) on the part of pretty much anyone with power and authority at Penn State.

It has been all over the media, as you know. It is inescapable and that’s a good thing because we so often avert our eyes from these stories, relegating them to isolated incidents of evil rather than a pervasive topic that touches many, many lives.

The National Center for Victims of Crime estimates t 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will have experienced an episode of sexual abuse while younger than 18 years.  The numbers of boys affected may be falsely low because of reporting techniques.

A 2003 study cited by Stop It Now! states that as many as one in three girls and one in seven boys will be sexually abused at some point in their childhood.

A google search will bring up lots and lots of data from reputable sources, as well as news articles about the institutional horror that was the Catholic Church’s response to the rape of children in their parishes and schools. Now, we can add Penn State University to the institutional category.  NPR has a useful timeline up to help put the awful extent of this situation into perspective.

I’m not going to write about Joe Paterno or other Pennsylvanians linked to this horrid story. Their actions are much discussed, their defense much debated and the consequences are growing more obvious.

I’m going to talk about me.

As the week’s events unfolded, I could not help but look inward and backward to my own brushes with sexual violence against children.  Two involved people I trusted and one is playing out now for a child I care about deeply.

  1. My home parish is Holy Spirit in West Mifflin. When I was a teen, John Wellinger was assigned as priest of our parish. The kids all thought he was creepy beyond belief. And he was. John Wellinger raped altar boys. He allegedly distributed drugs and alcohol to minors. One of his potential victims described (many years later) a situation in which Wellinger made a sexual advance to him. You can read the sordid details or Google them. It took many years for the Diocese to act.  This affected kids that I knew. It was also well known that adults in the church were under his sway. Kids told their parents and they did nothing in the face of institutional repression. It was awful then and remains awful now. Good people failed to act, failed to stand up to the Institution and children were raped as a result. This is not unfamiliar to you, I’m sure. But it is a very real to me story that hurts my head when I think back. I *feel* guilty that I didn’t do something even as I recognize that there was little I could do.
  2. A member of my extended family molested multiple girls in the family. I learned about this when I was twelve, but didn’t learn the full story until a few years ago. God knows who else outside of the family was molested. No reports to the police, no accountability. And no one stopped him.  Half of my relatives refuse to believe it. It is swept under the carpet. Except that I remember. And I wonder why adults didn’t do more to protect all of us girls.  (Let me add that I was not sexually victimized by this male relative.)  He is dead now so the abuse has been stopped. But the wounded lives …
  3. A young man I know now disclosed being sexually assaulted and in engaged in horrific sexual mutilation. That’s all I need to say. Help is hard to come by and the horrors of what he experienced are manifesting themselves in a way that could end his life.

I have had nightmares every night of this week. I dream of dark, dangerous things and feel that my personal safety is elusive. They are frightening awful dreams and make me somewhat afraid to go to sleep. Yep, told my therapist and Ledcat, too. But I know it is my subconscious processing the PSU story with my own experiences.

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Look again at the data. Consider that you know or knew or will know children being sexually assaulted by people they are supposed to trust.  What is your responsibility to them? We hear the story of McQueary witnessing a rape in the shower and are quick to say “I would have X, Y or Z” usually involving some violent response. I like to think I would have intervened, grabbed the child and rushed him to immediate safety, then called 911. I hope I would do that.

But I have described three situations where adults — good people for the most part — failed to take action and the lives of children have been destroyed.   When I share the story about my family member (with more details), the other person typically stares at me. Then they tell me their story. Stories of being assaulted by male family members, stories of sisters or best friends or their own children enduring the same fate.

I can compartmentalize and not live in the past. However, Joe Paterno’s failure to act has dredged up the feelings I experience as a child with very little power to protect myself. So it is incredibly personal. I’m not on a witch hunt, but I like to believe that there are moral adults in the world who do take action. I like to believe I am one of those adults.

But experience dictates otherwise. I know of at least seven children in my personal circle that were sexually assaulted or molested. I’m sure if I thought about it, I could remember more.  That doesn’t account for my professional experiences as a social worker. Factor that in and the number of children I “know” skyrockets to an unbelievable degree.

I am sharing this to try and exorcise some of the very real emotional and psychic pain I am experiencing. I can’t not pay attention because averting our eyes creates an additional layer of protection for the perpetrators.  But it is hard to absorb. I think my brain just shuts down. Or I get caught up in the side issues of the Mayor playing political games with Franco Harris (just unbelievable.) I need to sleep a restful sleep.

I wish there was something more concrete I could do to help these children. I hope that sharing my story, you will look for your own story and together we might change the endings for today’s children.

I am trying to do something constructive. The County Chief Executive’s 2012 budget includes a $19 million cut in the budget for the Department of Human Services. That’s awful, but within those cuts are potentially more than $10 million for Children Youth and Families (CYF) if you factor in matching funds. How can the agency charged with protecting and righting sexual injustices against children absorb a $10 million funding cut and still protect children? Like CYF or not, it is what we’ve got and they in turn fund dozens if not scores of youth based programs that do matter, that do prevent assaults and do help children recover.

My call to action has yet to be picked up, but I suspect I’m ahead of the curve in processing this situation because of years of processing my own.  I’ve already walked through the sense of violation, the shame of association, survivor’s guilt and the deep anger. That’s not to say I’m not appalled and angry with Penn State, the culture of football and the culture of athletics that all contributed to the rape of children.

If you are interested in a constructive use of your resources, please contact your County Councilor and tell them that balancing the budget (a necessary thing) at the expense of children’s safety is not acceptable. I’m waiting for a copy of the budget and a response from my own Councilwoman.

Attempts to link PSU to sexual orientation makes me want to vomit. The facts and research on child predators speak for themselves about this false information.  Media coverage has improved.  Perhaps that will help us shift the paradigm from  watching a train wreck to doing something constructive for other children, children right here in Allegheny County.  We can’t afford to click off the news and do nothing. Now you know the truth, my friends. Will you do the bare minimum or will you embrace the opportunity to stop the assault and do the moral things?

I have confidence in good people.


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