Apathy -- The Assistant Coach of Child Sexual Abuse

Penn State Coach Joe Paterno said, “Losing a game is heartbreaking. Losing your sense of excellence or worth is a tragedy.” Children that have been sexually abused know what he means. That sense of excellence and worth many consider to be a birthright of childhood is tragically altered the moment a child is abused.

When criminal acts occur in the sports arena, a place parents trust their children will be safe, this breech of innocence requires game-changing reform.

In recent weeks, former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky has had child rape charges filed against him and Syracuse University has fired basketball coach Bernie Fine for similar allegations of molestation.

In both instances the abuse appears to have occurred over years. Unfortunately, these cases are familiar; however, a new element is emerging in our national discussion of child abuse: the role of the passive bystander as accomplice.

Coach Paterno’s disregard of abuse allegations and patterns of problematic behavior calls into question the roles of community leaders. Athletic departments that turn the other way, lawmakers not legislating for stricter penalties against predators or neighbors who suspect abuse but share suspicions only after a child has been killed or abused are all culpable.

In Fine’s case prominent news organizations reportedly sat on the allegations for years. As they sit on the sidelines, they clear the playing-field for abuse.

With the spotlight on sports-related crime against children, we need to take this opportunity to make significant progress in the fight against child abuse.

It starts by recognizing that everyone has a responsibility to protect our children. Childhelp asks readers to get off the bench and report, educate and fight the epidemic of child abuse that exists in all of our communities. Many people see signs of abuse but refuse to come forward fearing they might be wrong. We say “risk making a mistake for the love of a child.”

According to a survey by Finkelhor & Dziuba-Leatherman, child sexual abuse is rarely identified. An estimated 3% of child sexual abuse cases are actually reported. When in doubt, act for the child and contact proper authorities. Dial 911, contact CPS or call the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline (1-800-4-A-CHILD/1-800-422-4453).

We make sure children wear proper knee pads and headgear to protect them during games but education is their best safety equipment for playing offense against child sexual abuse.

Learn what sexual abuse looks like. Physical indicators include: difficulty walking/sitting, torn/bloody undergarments, and genital pain/discharge/swelling. Behavioral indicators are: age-inappropriate sexual knowledge, delinquent activity, sleep disorders, withdrawal and self-abuse.

Even without signs, listen to children closely. Often boys and girls share subtle hints that someone in their social sphere is dangerous.

Teach children about the actions of perpetrators to ensure they are not being "groomed" for abuse. While most who work with kids are good-hearted, predators also flock to child-focal activities. Ninety percent of sexually abused children are victims of someone they know. The Childhelp “Speak Up, Be Safe!” prevention curriculum asserts that children must trust that “funny feeling” in their stomachs when something is wrong.

Educating yourself and your child about the signs of abuse will help to keep kids safe.

What has happened to the kids at Penn State and Syracuse is unimaginable and unforgivable, but we need to use the lessons of these tragedies to ensure that it won’t happen again.

Make legislating for children’s rights a key voting issue. We need passionate constituencies that support systems moving towards solutions. We need tough laws against predators, prosecutors pushing for convictions and judges applying harsh penalties, but most importantly we need the public to get off the sidelines and report, educate and fight abuse or our children will always remain vulnerable.

Sara O'Meara and Yvonne Fedderson are the founders of Childhelp a nationwide non-profit dedicated to the prevention and treatment of child abuse.