Now that Jerry Sandusky has been found guilty on 45 counts relating to sexually abusing boys, he is sure to be going away for a very long time. Also going away for now, as coverage of his trial fades. is that familiar prologue before many broadcast reports: “Let me warn our audience that the content of this report is graphic and sexual in nature and may not be suitable for younger viewers.”
I’m not so sure about that. Couching Sandusky’s crimes – and those of the priests protected by Monsignor William Lynn of Philadelphia – in words like “abuse” and “molest” sands just enough rough truth off the horrible reality to keep the pictures vague for listeners and viewers. But that’s not the case for the men whose excruciating testimony convinced a jury.
We want to protect our children from such things and ourselves from imagining evil. But, of course, it’s there, sometimes in places that should be a child’s refuge – school, camp, church or a respected charity for underprivileged youngsters founded by a revered university football coach.
Americans can be so squeamish. A Michigan legislator was silenced for using the word “vagina” – the anatomically correct term -- in her speech against a proposed bill restricting abortions. What would have more acceptable, a crude euphemism?
Are people more comfortable with locker-room jokes than speaking out about what can happen in a locker room where a predator takes his victims?
It’s child rape that football assistant coach Mike McQueary described witnessing. But grand jury testimony and other reports revealed different versions of his truth, with the Penn State hierarchy throwing out terms like “horsing around” when recalling their conversations with McQueary about what he saw. It seems as though semantic misunderstanding might be part of the defense of university officials Tim Curley and Gary Schultz, next up in court on perjury charges.
In an interview with the Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins, former Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno said that even if McQueary had been more graphic in his eyewitness report to him, Paterno might not have comprehended what he was saying. So he left it up to others to figure out what to do. The same goes for the Penn State coaches and counselors who allegedly saw Sandusky lying next to children on wrestling mats, showering with them, yet decided not to believe their own eyes.
I’m all for protecting the sensibilities of others, but not when it means letting young children fend for themselves against the crimes of adults. Sandusky used our culture of secrecy about sexual matters, professing affection for children too young to have the vocabulary and the confidence to tell other adults about their pain and suffering. Sandusky’s calculated cruelty – using a charity to seek out needy young boys – does leave one nearly speechless. That’s all the more more reason to clearly speak out.
I was struck by an after-trial report that neighbors are now expressing out loud what they long suspected. According to one quoted in the Post, “People would say ‘Keep your boys away from Jerry Sandusky.’ And yesterday that puzzle took a very vivid shape.”
So to some it was common knowledge that something was off with this adult who sought out the company of boys; but as long it was someone else’s child and no one spelled out what he might be doing, it seemed better to keep silent. For lessons on what silence and secrets can cost, the residents of Happy Valley could have turned to the Roman Catholic Church, which, no matter how much money it shells out or how many confessional prayers the guilty utter, is still paying for its sins.
Telling our children clearly and without shame what they need to know about inappropriate sexual contact is important; so is learning to face the truth of such “delicate” matters ourselves. In trying to keep the harshness of the world at bay, we leave our young defenseless and give ourselves an out.
We don’t want to talk about the things the boys Sandusky abused -- raped -- will never forget.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3