Penn State child sex abuse scandal: The worst kind of failure

November 15, 2011

By Angela Liddle

The following column was published today, Tuesday, November 15, 2011, int the Patriot-News

“Failure to report suspected sexual abuse.” We heard or read those words over the weekend of November 5 as an incredibly sordid child sex abuse scandal unfolded at Penn State.

Failure to report. The implications of those words are chilling, especially because it turned out that young children were the alleged victims of the suspected abuse. The implications go beyond a perpetrator allowed to go unpunished, although that’s horrible enough in its own right.

ANDY COLWELL for The Patriot-NewsFormer Penn State coaching legend Jerry Sandusky is arraigned on sex abuse charges Saturday, Nov. 5 in State College, Pa.

Worse — far worse — “failure to report” suggests the victimization of others that could have been prevented. It suggests wounds and suffering that could have been avoided if only someone had done his or her duty by reporting.

A graduate assistant allegedly saw a sexual assault take place in 2002 in the shower room of the Penn State football facility involving former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky and an underage boy. According to the report of the grand jury that investigated the incident, the grad assistant went to football coach Joe Paterno, who informed the athletic director, who discussed it with a university vice president who oversaw the university police force. Nobody reported the incident to the police.

The grand jury concluded it “should have been reported to the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare and/or a law enforcement agency such as the university police or the Pennsylvania State Police.”

The report noted that “Pennsylvania’s mandatory reporting statute for child abuse provides that when a staff member reports abuse the person in charge of the school or institution has the responsibility and legal obligation to report or cause such a report to be made by telephone and in writing within 48 hours to the Department of Public Welfare of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”

A comment posted on the Internet after the grand jury report became public got it right: “They all let that poor kid down, and by extension many others that came after.” For a long time, our organization, the Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance, has been trying to educate people to the importance of reporting suspected child abuse.

We have recently been backing legislation that would require school personnel to undergo required periodic training in what constitutes abuse and how to report it. The case for that legislation is now overwhelmingly apparent.

Angela liddle.JPGAngela Liddle

The grand jury report recounted another incident of alleged sexual assault in the shower of the football facility that was witnessed by a janitor in 2000. The janitor was so upset that co-workers were fearful he would have a heart attack. The report said the janitor’s supervisor “told him to whom he should report the incident, if he chose to report it.” No report was made.

If that janitor had received training, he might have understood what he witnessed for what it was — a potential crime — and might have known what to do, how to report it and might have had the confidence to do so. It’s too late for the victims who have been harmed. It’s not too late to prevent more children from becoming victims.

Senate Bill 449, the measure to require school personnel to be trained to spot and report child abuse, has already passed the Senate by a 50-0 vote. It’s time to quickly move ahead with passage in the House of Representatives, put the bill on the governor’s desk and then get on with the job of making sure nothing such as this happens again anywhere in Pennsylvania.