When news broke of the child abuse scandal involving former Penn State assistant football coach, Jerry Sandusky— news that soon led to the termination of head football coach Joe Paterno— the country breathed a collective gasp. How could this happen at such a respected university and within one of the most visible athletic programs in the country? How could two different witnesses catch Sandusky in two separate acts of abuse and do nothing to save the children? How could university officials just file away this information as if it were not an emergency?
The Pennsylvania attorney general charged Sandusky with forty counts of sex crimes against minors. The grand jury report tells of a predator who had access to children through an organization called the Second Mile. Sandusky founded the Second Mile in 1977 to improve the lives of young people in Pennsylvania. To date, the organization has served hundreds of thousands of families. Sandusky also had a name that was associated with one of the country’s great college football programs. He had access, power, and influence. And no one stopped him.
Sandusky is not the only person connected with a high-profile college sports program to face recent child abuse allegations. Last Sunday Syracuse University fired assistant men’s head basketball coach Bernie Fine after three men accused him of sexually assaulting them when they were minors and after ESPN released an audio recording of an incriminating 2002 conversation between Fine’s wife and one of the alleged victims.
Some Hard Facts
According to Stop It Now!, a child sexual abuse prevention group, about 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 7 boys experience some form of sexual abuse and only 12–30 percent of incidents are actually reported. Organizations including churches, scouting groups, and youth sports leagues have been guilty of covering up instances of child abuse. Even families have been known to enact cover-ups. Jeannetta Issa of the Child Abuse Prevention Association says that “families frequently deny child abuse in their midst.”
When we hear about child abuse, many of us still think of strangers offering candy. But that old stereotype doesn’t match the profile of most abusers. Abusers are rarely strangers; they’re often liked and respected by the child’s family. Issa reports that perpetrators not only charm the kids into abusive situations but also the adults whose job is it to protect the children.
Protecting Our Kids
Of all places the church should be a place where young people feel free to experience God’s love and discover the abundant life that God has for them—a place where they feel safe and loved. They should know that the adults in their church family are their advocates. And there should be systems in place to make sure that youth and children are protected.
Some congregations and denominations have mandatory safety programs for youth, children, and vulnerable adults, such as the Safe Sanctuaries program of The United Methodist Church. Sometimes policies can seem cumbersome, especially when they require background checks, training volunteers, the need for extra volunteers to ensure two adults are present at all times, windows on doors, and waiting periods for volunteers. But following such a policy doesn’t seem so difficult when something bad happens and we need to know what to do. Having a policy and rules and training makes us knowledgeable and equips us to respond.
Those of us who work with youth also must equip them with the knowledge, skills, and confidence to see abuse, name it, and tell a trusted adult or police officer. How can we ensure that youth in our churches recognize abuse? What tools can we give them to prevent abusive situations? Most importantly, how can we instill in youth a deep awareness of God’s love for them and their sacred worth?
This article is also being published as part of LinC, an exciting weekly digital resource for youth small groups and Sunday school classes. The complete study guide can be purchased and downloaded here.