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TheRootDC
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Posted at 11:08 AM ET, 11/15/2011

Penn State, sexual abuse and survivors

A friend, who is also a counselor, and I talked last week about Penn State sex abuse scandal during a two-hour walk. The grand jury findings against Jerry Sandusky had been published, but Joe Paterno had not yet been fired (that would happen the next day). We were debating Paterno’s culpability and how we might have reacted if we were Mike McQueary and had seen a child being assaulted right before our eyes.
In this Nov. 21, 2008 file photo, Penn State football coach Joe Paterno shows some emotion while addressing the crowd gathered at Rec Hall in State College, Pa. (AP Photo/Centre Daily Times, Mark Johnston) (CDT/Mark Johnston - AP)

Once you see something like that you can’t un-see it.

More importantly, as in the case of that young boy, and millions of other young children like him, once you’ve experienced something like that, you can’t un-experience it.

A little over twenty years ago, I was intimately involved in a sexual abuse situation. The survivor, at that time a teenager, confided in me about abuse at the hand of a relative over the course of several years.

I was outraged, stunned, shocked - and scared. I insisted that we tell the survivor’s parents that same night. My suggestion was violently resisted at first, but the survivor gave in after I made the case that adults needed to be told and would know what to do.

I was wrong.

They didn’t know what to do. They gave it their best shot, I believe, but they were totally unprepared for the emotionally wrenching turmoil that sexual abuse causes. The survivor exhibited all of the classic signs that something was wrong, but the parents had never put two-and-two together. 

Things got worse before they got better.

More than twenty years later, the survivor is still grappling with the self-worth issues inherent in cases of child sexual abuse. At one point, obesity was a major issue in that person’s life. I’m not a counselor, so I’m not qualified to make a judgment of this, but I’m not sure how much “healing” has taken place.

Which brings me back to Penn State and the way the word “healing” was tossed around this past weekend before, during and after their football game with the University of Nebraska: I hate to break it to everyone involved in this tragedy, but healing is nowhere in the cards just a week or so after the revelation.

What many of those folks meant when they said “healing” was really something more akin to being “distracted from”or “forgetting,” the same way most of us eventually got distracted from all of the institutional sex abuse cases involving churches, the Boy Scouts and others over the past few years. At first we’re outraged. Then we’re overloaded with the media coverage and we ook for something else to occupy our minds. We are simply unwilling to dwell on it – or anything else for that matter - very long.

The bad news is it’s going to get worse before it gets better for Penn State.

And what, you must be asking yourself, could possibly be the “good” news?  The “good” news is that the person most responsible for bringing the Penn State situation to light was one of the very survivors of Sandusky’s heinous alleged acts. This teenager had decided enough was enough, and pulled together a courage that few others involved in the case seemed able to muster.

And in that bold act, that defiance of shame and possible stigma, he gave other survivors a blueprint for possibly setting themselves free at some point.  He showed them that they do not have to be silent about what happened to them. What this child did was not simple or easy, but it was empowering.  It took guts. Because of it, others may be able to marshal the courage to come forward.  And that’s good news.

I read one post by a sports writer who described the targets of Sandusky’s alleged crimes as “eternally damaged”. These kids are not eternally damaged. That is a disabling and inaccurate label. Child sexual abuse survivors who report their abusers should be respected, commended and supported for their bravery. They prove that there is a part of the human spirit that will not be crushed under the weight of fear and shame. 

Child sexual abuse survivors are capable of much more than we give them credit for. They show us that when all else fails, and when others fail us, it is possible to be the hero or heroine of our own lives.

Walk a mile or thirty in those shoes.

For the regulars, here’s my check in:

Day 72

It's time to stop breaking the promises you make to yourself to eat right, exercise and develop healthier habits. For the next three months, from 05 September 2011 to 05 December 2011, MISSION: INCREDIBLE NOLA focuses on getting healthier one day at a time. There is only one rule: do a little more today than you did yesterday to keep your promise of taking better physical care of yourself. Follow that one rule - EVERYDAY - and the changes you see in three months will be incredible.

We're all at very different exercise levels and we all have different weight targets, but it's always nice to know you've got company on the journey. We'll focus on three goals as part of our daily check-in: G1 - diet (the good, the bad and the ugly); G2 - exercise (your physical exercise for that day); and, G3 - healthy habits (things we adopt or learn along the way that help). Join us and leave your comments below!

Last week I walked over thirty miles. That’s five 10-Ks.  I remember training for my first 10-K back in 2006, for the first run of the New Orleans Crescent City Classic after Hurricane Katrina. Back in those days it took me months to work up to walking a full six miles. Now I can do five of them in one week. That says something about the human spirit and what we can accomplish when our minds are ready to tackle a challenge.

We are capable of much more than we give ourselves credit for.

I walk at a pace of about twenty minutes per mile, so it takes me about two hours to do a six-mile walk. I walked twice alone and three times with a great friend who also happens to be a counselor by profession.

G1: You all will have to forgive me for not having a detailed dietary diary entry for today. It just seemed trivial to me as I wrote this blog entry. I’ll have it next time.

G2: As I stated at the beginning of the piece, I logged thirty miles walking this past week. I feel great about that, and proved to myself that I could do more and go farther than I thought. Outstanding!

G3: If you want to learn more about child sexual abuse and how you can help survivors, please visit http://www.heathevans.org/about.aspx. Heath Evans is a former New Orleans Saint and his foundation is dedicated to fostering hope and healing in the lives of children and families affected by sexual abuse.

The foundation is committed to breaking the cycle of abuse through healing the psychological, physical, and spiritual wounds inflicted on innocent children.

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