What Joe Paterno Could Have Prevented

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According to recent reports (including his own), Joe Paterno, the legendary football coach at Penn State, knew back in 2002 that his defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, was an alleged pedophile who had sexually assaulted at least one young boy. Yet, Mr. Paterno did no more than report the incident to other administrators at Penn State, while continuing to work alongside Sandusky.

Now, Sandusky has been charged with sexually abusing eight victims, and there may well be more.

Mr. Paterno has stated that he is devastated by these events and wishes he had done more to prevent them. I wonder, however, whether he has a real understanding of exactly what injuries—from a psychological standpoint—he could have prevented.

As someone who has treated victims of sexual abuse over the last two decades, I could tell him. He could have prevented catastrophic psychological dynamics from unfolding in the lives of victims and their families.

When a child is made to participate in a sex act with an adult, it leads to intense feelings of fear and guilt and betrayal, which can easily color his or her entire existence.

These feelings are often suppressed. Hence, they can crop up in devastating ways later on: in the inability to trust any authority figure, in a tendency to avoid feelings at all, in literally slipping away from reality (dissociating), in attempts to suppress memories and feelings using alcohol and illicit drugs, in attention deficit disorder, in major depression, in sexual disorders and in suicide.

The key to understanding why so much and such severe psychological fallout can attend sexual abuse is that children are simply not equipped emotionally to participate in a romantic or erotic relationship with an adult. Therefore, they are, by definition, being overwhelmed and commandeered for the gratification of a much more powerful individual. They are, for all intents and purposes, being psychologically kidnapped, with all the related feelings of powerlessness and impending doom. And for those who cover up those feelings by pretending to have been favored by their abusers, there is always a day of reckoning with the reality that they were only the favorite victims.

Mr. Paterno may have known what it took to win on a football field. He may have known something about courage when facing big men running full tilt toward you, intent on stopping you, but he apparently knew nothing about moral courage, nor how to protect those among us who really need protection. It’s time that we made that distinction plain. And this is a case in which it could not be plainer.