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Child Abuse Scandal And The Court Of Public Opinion

from the November 22, 2011 eNews issue
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The recent sex abuse scandal at Penn State University has brought to the forefront a polarizing conflict: How do we protect our children from sexual abuse, and at the same time avoid "witch hunts" based on premature or even false allegations that can ruin lives as surely as actual abuse cases?

Complicating the issue is the cultural construct of being "tried in the court of public opinion," in which the media often does more than the actual legal system to determine a person's fate.

The current Penn State scandal highlights the problem. Jerry Sandusky, a defensive coach for a two-time national championship football team and operator of Second Mile charity, stands accused of sexually assaulting eight boys. There is ample evidence that something was amiss, and the failure to report at least one incident cost PSU president Graham Spanier and head coach Joe Paterno their jobs.

In a telephone interview with Bob Costas last week, Sandusky himself admitted, "I could say that I have done some of those things. I have horsed around with kids I have showered after workouts. I have hugged them and I have touched their legs without intent of sexual contact." Still, Sandusky vehemently denies the allegations of sexual abuse or that he is sexually attracted to young boys.

Yet, it isn't the words of Sandusky himself, the apparent cover-up by PSU administration, or even the expectation that more victims will come forward that is the epicenter of the scandal. No, the real focus now is on something else. A book.

The Book:
In 2000, Sandusky published his autobiography, Touched: The Jerry Sandusky Story. A very public investigation has erupted to re-evaluate Sandusky's words eleven years after the fact in light of the recent allegations. Yet this is neither fair to Sandusky nor to his accusers. There's no hard and fast scientific method to determine whether or not the text is an introspective written by a depraved pedophile. Else, the red flags should have shot up over a decade ago when the book first came out.

Sandusky may have abused those boys, and the administration may have looked the other way. If it's all true, then the lives of trusting children have been forever tainted and innocence lost without recourse. The possibility that other adults suspected wrong doing and did nothing demonstrates a severe dereliction of responsibility, of common human decency. Something went seriously wrong.

At the same time, Sandusky has not yet been convicted of anything. We do not actually know what happened. And so, the media wrongly dissects his book, garnishing what is an already very public scandal in order to add "newsworthy" controversy.

As CNN reporter Ann O'Neill writes, "His book…provides a glimpse of a man who is not very introspective and admits to his own immaturity. Even the title, ‘Touched,' seems creepy in hindsight, considering the sex charges lodged against him and the tender years of his accusers."

"He talks a lot in that book about hugging kids, about loving to be around kids," Patriot News editor David Newhouse told CNN's Piers Morgan. "There's some chilling things in that book, and it's only when you put them together with the allegations that you can see, perhaps, what he meant."

Analyzing his words through the lens of an eleven-year gap combined with the recent allegations is hardly valid. Sandusky may in fact be guilty, but the media should not encourage people to read things that are not there, visualizing demons that may not exist. We want to foster an environment in which victims feel free to come forward and criminals are brought to justice. We do not want to encourage witch hunts that tear apart the lives of innocent people.

Child Abuse:
While child abuse continues to be a problem in America, its numbers actually appear to be on the decline. According to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS), substantiated claims of child sexual abuse more than halved - from 65,964 cases in 2009 down from about 150,000 in 1992. NCANDS has also stipulated that there could be an increased reluctance to report child sexual abuse because of a so-called "child abuse backlash”, an unwillingness to be accused of wrongly reporting child abuse.

The Controversy:
This brings us back to the Penn State scandal. Did Sandusky sexually abuse eight boys? Did the PSU administration purposefully cover it up? Is it possible that an entire community was subjected to a predator for the sake of the reputation of its beloved football team?

Possibly.

Perhaps the allegations are unfounded. Perhaps Sandusky acted inappropriately, but without sexual intent or malice. On the other hand, the administration could have been unwilling to face a "child abuse backlash." The victims may have been afraid, and so took a decade to come forward.

In any of these scenarios, it seems that while legally the outcome will be determined in court and through the justice system, in practical terms, much has already been determined. Spanier and Paterno's legacy has been unalterably tarnished by the scandal. Sandusky will undoubtedly be viewed as a pedophile no matter the outcome. The victims and their families will be forced to endure a public re-hashing of what can only be a very painful memory. False accusers will get their "fifteen minutes" of fame, complete with book deals and media appearances.

Yet through all of this, the basic question will remain obfuscated; did we fail to protect eight boys, or did we allow the media's "court of public opinion" to once again expose innocent lives to unwarranted public scrutiny, which will in turn encourage future administrators and future victims to keep real abuse cases to themselves rather than report them when they happen?

When forced to choose, which will we embrace, the eradication of sexual predation, or the satisfaction of voyeuristic entertainment presented as news?

Related Links:

  •   Sandusky Denies He's A Pedophile, Declares Innocence To Charges - USA Today
  •   Jerry Sandusky's 'Make-Believe World' - CNN
  •   'Pretending' Always Part Of Sandusky's World - CNN
  •   Despite Scandal, US Makes Headway Vs. Sex Abuse - AP
  •   The Decline in Child Sexual Abuse Cases - Juvenile Justice Bulletin