Of course, we know who the villain is in the Penn State scandal that continues to widen: it is Jerry Sandusky, the alleged perpetrator of massive child sexual abuse. We also are learning that there were a number of enablers—former administrators and the leadership of the Penn State football program, including, sadly, the legendary Joe Paterno, head coach for the past five decades. I have written on all of this in the last few days.
But I’d like to give high praise and credit to two sets of heroes in this sordid business. First, of course, is the young man who came forward recently to speak out about what happened to him at the hands of Sandusky. As someone who has stood with hundreds of child abuse survivors of abuse by Catholic priests, Boy Scout leaders, Mormon Church leaders, and other trusted adults, I know something of the kind of courage and presence that it takes for a relatively young survivor of child abuse, as this man is, to speak out about the unspeakable things that happened to him as a child. Without his guts and commitment to stopping Sandusky, the abuse of other boys might have gone on and on. He is a genuine hero.
The other set of heroes that must not be forgotten in this story are those who paved the way for the kind of unequivocal moral outrage that has greeted this story by the press and the public. I refer to the hundreds and thousands of men and women who came forward in the last decade or so to speak out about what happened to them as children in the Catholic Church, in Boy Scouts, in the Mormon Church and in other institutions of trust where so much sexual abuse occurred. Without their determination and courage, society would not be as informed as it is about the nature and devastation of child sexual abuse. It occurs to me that we have not heard, from the media or pundits, even the sports media, ignorant or uninformed comments and questions that were common only a few years ago: “well, if this was happening, why didn’t the boys say something to stop it?” “Why did they wait so long to speak up about what happened to them?” We just haven’t heard that sort of thing very much in the coverage of this scandal. And I submit that this is because of the courageous men and women who in the past decade have told their stories of child sexual abuse—to the media, in courtrooms and lawsuits, and in personal testimonials. They often said that one reason they decided to speak out about their childhood abuse was to educate society and to try to prevent child abuse. And although Sandusky was still able to abuse those boys for decades, he ultimately did not get away with it, and those who enabled him to abuse as long as he did have not gone unaccountable. And so we owe these thousands of survivors of Catholic, Boy Scout, Mormon and other abuse our gratitude. They, too, are heroes.