This is my second home. 6pm, a crowded room of 12-18 year-olds, fresh off of their Doritos and grape soda hi’s. One of the more affable students, a 12 year old whose futile attempts at being gangsta only make him more lovable, for the first and only time gets a running start and jumps onto my back. Instinctively I reach behind me, grab him by the shoulders and begin to flip him over me. We are both laughing hysterically, and enjoying this moment. From the clues I’ve gotten from his grandparents, he doesn’t have a lot of interaction with grown men. Not in school, not at home, not in the streets that baby sit him, but here he’s my kid. Then another of student yells out “PENN STATE!”
And there you have it.
Like the rest of the nation, I have finally had a moment to breath. To inhale the stale stench of the Penn State phenomena, process this betrayal of the children, and the details of this heinous crime. This is the time to ask the cliche question “so what did we learn from this?”. In this instance that question can be quite chilling because almost all cases like this involve someone who is taking advantage of their position as a leader, mentor and educator of young lives. These crimes are perpetrated by people who are assigned the task of seeking out, and taking advantage, of teachable moments. For all intents and purposes Sandusky and I are in the same business, actively looking to have access to children, to help them through teachable moments. His alleged crimes casts a shadow over me and the millions of adults who have the trust of parents, children and communities. The “joke” a student yelled at me was just an extended part of the assault that Sandusky has perpetrated on all of us. The children involved in these crimes undoubtedly have asked “what did I learn from this? About proper adult behavior? About my own sexuality? About how the world feels about me?”
Some of the minor question us responsible adults must answer include: What have we learned about the “more popular than Jesus” Penn State football program? What have I learned about my own patronage in the national religion that is football? What have I learned about my own age and the skewed reality of the 20 year-olds on a college campuses? What have we learned about one of the most adored phrases in youth work, “at-risk-youth”? What can we learn from the soft language used to describe this situation by reporters? (Why is anal rape described as “molesting”? To molest means to bother, and what happened to these children was more than a bother). Above all these, the question that is really important to answer now, and correctly is: What have we learned that will allow us to prevent this in the future?
I have always been disturbed by “To Catch a Predator” with Chris Hanson, and not for the same reasons that most people are. Yes, I was blown away by how many adults are pulled into this trap by the lure of sex with a 12 year old boy or girl. It was heart wrenching to see that law enforcement would continue to catch men in this trap, from every conceivable demographic, as long as the trap was left open. What disturbed me even more is that Chris Hanson and his producers did episode after episode without ever exploring the issue of why. I understand that the show was really about the salaciousness of the crime and the ratings it would attract. But at some point when was Chris going to tackle the question of prevention from the root level and discover what went wrong in the minds of these men? Like any other issue mass media attempts to address, they prove that they are smoke fighters and not fire fighters. What happens in the life of a human that turns them into sexual predators?
A few years ago I got a contract teaching summer creative writing classes at the Washington National Cathedral. As part of my contract I had to take part in a workshop that lasted several hours about sexual predators. The workshop seemed to be new, and birthed out of their genuine concern for the safety of their young people, and quite possibly the heat that religious community was getting from the Catholic pedophilia scandal (there are many who think the Washington National Cathedral is a Catholic church instead of a Episcopal institution). We watched videos and listened to testimonies from former victims, parents and even a perpetrator of sexual abuse, then engaged in discussions and a point by point plan as to how to detect such abuse, and make sure that as an educator and care taker you aren’t mistakenly caught up in a scandal such as this.
I thought that maybe this was finally my opportunity to get answers as to why people do this. By the end of the session the facilitator had still not addressed what caused a person to become such a monster, even though a convicted and confessed pedophile was featured prominently in the video we watched. So when they asked if there are any closing questions I took that as my opportunity to ask. “What causes people to do this, and how can we detect the signs of pedophilia in a person before they turn into actions?”. The answer was so vague that I can’t quote it directly, but it was something like: people who are going through really low times in their life sometimes look to take advantage of someone else to feel some sense of power. That was the least helpful answer I could have gotten. “People in a low period in their lives?” That puts way to many people I know in this suspect line-up.
In our society pedophiles need to just disappear, evaporate into dust. They should be killed and tossed into the ocean. I understand that sentiment. The thought of my sons being sexually abused is greeted by nothing less than homicide, a violent quick death for the perpetrator no matter what the consequences are for myself. But we are learning that the instances of pedophilia are so prevalent that we can’t just kill it away or wish it away.
So I go online and look up statistics on pedophilia. I’ve seen numerous studies and reports with figures, charts and percentages. As much as I want to re-post them, what almost every study admitted to was that we have little to know idea about the prevalence of this crime because people are so afraid to come forward. When experts have to estimate that their figures are probably off by 10-40%, that is basically admitting that they know nothing. So what do we really know?
What we do know, and what institutions like Penn State need to understand, is that having a pedophile infiltrate your organization is not a reflection of the organization. Professionals in this field, the psychologists, psychiatrists, law enforcement and youth workers, are clueless as to why this happens and how to prevent it without catching someone and prosecuting them afterwards. Organizations that are tied up in potential scandals do not need to be ashamed, initially they are victims as well. Pedophilia is a problem that our society has only begun to admit too, let alone understand and prevent.
How the organization handles the pedophile does, however, show the character of the leadership of the organization. We have learned that these incidents can never be stamped out, and that the only proper thing Penn State could have done was admit to the incident and let the community and the Nation know that it wouldn’t be tolerated at their university.
So in the end I’ve learned there was only one thing to do. The next morning I told one then the other of my sons something. We had already had the proper and improper touch conversation, one that I remind myself to repeat as often as possible. What I had failed to tell them until them now, was that anyone who tells them they have done something to change how much I love them is lying and doing something to hurt them. They need to tell me about that person immediately. Predators use our children’s desire to stay loved by us to keep them silent. Yes, I can scout out the places they are, and vet the people they are with, but in the end its our relationships with our children that will keep them safe.