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What Joe Paterno taught me: It’s time to stop keeping secrets

By J.C. Derrick,

The scandal surrounding former Penn State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky and all those who covered for him took me to the point of physical sickness this week. More than just a news story that sparked anger and tears, it brought me face to face with my past: I was sexually abused when I was 8.

You have no idea how hard it is to write those words. Saying them is even harder.

On Wednesday I fought to get those words out, to share my story with college classmates. Afterward, two students told me they had similar stories.

That night I watched video of Penn State students chanting obscenities, dumping trash cans, taking down light poles and even overturning a news van.

“We’re finding a way to express our anger,” one student told the New York Times.

Take that anger, multiply it by a thousand and then imagine holding it inside for five, 10 or 15 years. Then you’ll know what Sandusky’s victims feel.

Judging by the comments that have flooded the Internet this week, many people still don’t understand why head football coach Joe Paterno had to go. He told his athletic director what he’d learned about Sandusky. He followed the law. He did what he was supposed to do.

Maybe it’s time for people to stand up and start doing more than they’re “supposed” to do.

Paterno’s ouster sends a powerful message that will reverberate not only within college football but throughout the country. For sending that message — and by a unanimous vote — I thank the Board of Trustees at Penn State University. Words cannot describe how much it means to me that they understood what is at stake.

Their vote Wednesday wasn’t about a coach being removed. It was a symbolic vote of support for underage victims of sex abuse everywhere. Most of us won’t get justice, big settlements, a day in court or even acknowledgment of our pain.

For one night, the Penn State board acknowledged our pain.

Don’t get me wrong: I understand that Joe Paterno is a good man. But he was a good man who made a bad decision, and he kept making the same bad decision every day for nine years.

Even good men must suffer the consequences.

In a strange way, I understand what Paterno was thinking. He was protecting a member of the family, just as I did for 15 years. It’s easy to get on your high horse and talk about what you would have done if you aren’t emotionally invested in a situation.

Imagine if the offender were your co-worker, friend or spouse. The facts suggest that most people would rather keep quiet and convince themselves that such abuse won’t happen again — even though it will.

We have created a society in which we would rather maintain the status quo than stop sexual predators.

The worst thing we can do is pretend that the negligent behavior at Penn State is the exception and not the norm. The reality is that people everywhere are hiding the same kind of secrets.

Researchers generally estimate that one in six U.S. boys and one in four U.S. girls are sexually abused before their 18th birthday; the majority of the perpetrators are acquaintances and family members.

For the most part, Penn State is like the rest of the country. Lots of people had a chance to stop what happened there, and lots of people opted to take the road of least resistance.

Let’s face it: Admitting to sexual abuse is embarrassing for the victim. It is, in fact, humiliating.

But if the victims in Pennsylvania can tell their story, others can too.

One of the reasons I never talked about the issue is because it makes people uncomfortable. Maybe it’s time for us to be uncomfortable. Maybe it’s time for people to start speaking up and speaking out against this despicable evil.

The bad news about this week is that this sex abuse scandal has taken down college officials and one of the winningest coaches in college football history while marring a school’s image forever. But there can be good news too.

If this scandal can spark a chain reaction of releasing the grip of secrecy on child sex abuse, then maybe Jerry Sandusky’s victims will not have suffered in vain. May the legacy of the Penn State victims be that their courageous actions opened the floodgates of open, honest dialogue in our families and communities.

No one wins when we keep secrets.

J.C. Derrick, a writer in Washington, is an intern with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. His e-mail address is derrickjc80@gmail.com.

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