Learning from Joe Paterno

I’m not going to rehash the Penn State sexual abuse saga here.

For one thing, I have no desire to do so. Over the past 48 hours, I have read some great articles criticizing all those who refused to look into the allegations against Jerry Sandusky and standing up for those children who were victimized by him. I don’t have anything to add to what has already been written on the subject.

For another, I’m not even sure I could. I can’t remember the last time a story made me this sick to my stomach. I’ve had to lessen my exposure to the news coverage as the story has dragged on because I couldn’t stand to read or hear anymore about what Sandusky is accused of doing. It’s just disgusting.

As awful as the story is, however, I think there are some important things that we as parents and youth workers need to pay attention to, especially as the story pertains to Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno.

Paterno is one of the most legendary and revered figures in college football history, holding his position at Penn State for an astounding 45 years. Even when the team wasn’t having much success on the field and some were calling for him to be fired, no one ever seemed to question the fact that he was a good, moral man who at the very least instilled discipline and values into the young men he coached.

However, all of that went out the window this weekend when the story broke that a graduate assistant had alerted Paterno to Sandusky’s behavior a decade ago. Rather than confront his former employee (and reported good friend) or call the police, Paterno chose to pass the information on to another university official and wash his hands of it, content that, “I did what I was supposed to.”

Paterno has understandably (and rightfully) come under fire for fulfilling the minimal legal requirement without questioning what his greater moral responsibility was, especially since innocent children paid for his failure to do so. Whether this costs him his job or not is yet to be seen (Update, 11/9/11: Paterno has been fired.), but it begs an interesting question for us:

What can we do as parents and youth workers to ensure the safety of children entrusted to our care? How can we protect against passing the buck of responsibility at the cost of a child’s innocence?

Here are a five things I think we can need to do to try and avoid the mistakes Paterno and other Penn State officials made:

1. Know your kids. There is just no substitute for knowing your children to the point where you can tell when something is wrong … even if they would initially deny that anything is wrong. This goes for youth workers as well as for parents. If you don’t have a knowledge of your students that goes beyond surface-level, small-talk stuff, or if you are unable to read non-verbal clues that people give, this is something you need to work on. Sometimes kids need the adult to take the initiative in confronting a difficult or awkward situation before they open up. “Don’t ask; don’t tell” should never characterize our family and ministry relationships. If you never ask, they might not tell. And if they don’t tell, more children might be harmed.

2. Be someone your kids can open up to. You don’t have to be their best friend (in fact, please don’t be their best friend, at least not as they would define it), but your kids need to know that they can come to you with something huge going on in their life. You don’t want them hiding abuse because they don’t feel comfortable talking to you. This means that you need to be proactive in talking to your children about sex and other uncomfortable topics. The more they hear from peers and media and the less they hear from you, the more awkward and uncomfortable it will be to talk with you. You need to take the initiative and have those important conversations early and often.

3. Know your kids’ teachers, youth leaders, scout masters, etc. Too often parents assume that the people who are paid to work with their kids are more qualified than they are so they just stay out of the relationship and let those people work. This is precisely the type of environment that breeds abuse. God gives ultimate and primary responsibility for your children’s well-being to you. You need to be involved in every relationship your child has with an adult. In a good article looking at this subject for the New York Times, Frank Bruni made the point that:

Parents face a tricky challenge. They need to be watchful but not paranoid, because most clergy members, scout leaders, camp counselors and coaches aren’t abusers in waiting and are improving children’s lives. They deserve the opportunity to.

But parents should also remain conscious of an additional lesson suggested by the Penn State story. Institutions do an awful job of policing themselves.

Organizations, schools, and unfortunately even some churches have proven themselves unable to handle these situations and protect the children involved. Naomi Schaefer Riley pinpoints the reason why in her article Lessons from Penn State for The Chronicle of Higher Education when she writes:

They don’t have the interests of the victim in mind. They don’t have any interest in protecting the rights of the accused. Their interest is in protecting the school’s reputation (and their own jobs). That is it.

The best thing you can do as a parent is to involve yourself in your child’s life and use Godly discernment to determine which leaders are protecting your child and which ones are preying on them. If the adult in question is truly looking out for your children, he will value your involvement because it benefits the children and helps him do his job. If he’s not, knowing your children have a concerned, involved parent that they talk to and confide in might just be the thing that keeps him from abusing them.

4. Keep your kids out of potentially dangerous situations. The amount of time your children spend one-on-one with an adult should be kept to a minimum (and to adults that you trust beyond a shadow of a doubt), and when it does occur, it should be in a public place. This means you need to know at all times where your children are and who they are with. Rides home need to be arranged BEFORE an event, not at the spur of the moment after an event. This also means knowing if your 12-year-old daughter’s girlfriend has an 18-year-old brother whose friends are always over, and if her girlfriend’s parents think that the brother being home counts as adult supervision. If your pre-teen complains about a lack of privacy, tough. Again, you are responsible for keeping them safe.

For the youth worker, this means ensuring that these situations never arise at an event for which you are responsible. Make sure that leaders are not left alone with individual students; meet with students in coffee shops or other places that provide privacy of conversation and public accountability at the same time; ensure that parents know the purpose of every outing, the exact plan for getting kids home, and update them immediately with any possible delays. Build accountability into the system, both to protect the children and to shield leaders from any possible false accusations. We need to be above reproach when it comes to protecting the innocence of our kids.

5. Take accusations seriously. Let me state immediately that there is a huge difference between taking an accusation seriously and prematurely besmirching someone’s name and reputation publicly. Many times we hear the excuse that no one followed up on an accusation because they didn’t want to needlessly ruin a good man’s reputation. But there are ways to investigate discreetly. If your child tells you that they were abused, you should never take that lightly. Teachers and other youth leaders are legally responsible to report any such accusation or suspicion. But again, it shouldn’t stop there because our moral responsibility is greater than our legal one. Joe Paterno should not have been content with telling another university official. He should have followed up to see if an investigation had happened. He should have made sure that official took the accusation seriously. Even more so, since he had a relationship with Sandusky, he should have confronted him with the accusation personally. Within the church, we already have a blueprint for how to handle these situations in Matthew 18:15-20.

Yes, we need to understand that kids lie and can misunderstand things, but we cannot let these be excuses for not fulfilling our moral responsibility. These are just more reasons to know your kids (so you can tell when they are lying) and to talk with them about uncomfortable subjects (so they won’t misunderstand things, will know exactly what abuse is, and that it is wrong to falsely accuse people).

Finally, in addition to (and more importantly than) these five things, we need to pray for our children and for the other adults that we entrust them to. Ultimately, no methods of prevention that we try can completely protect our kids. We can never be good enough parents or leaders to ensure no harm will ever come to them. Eventually we need to just lift them up to God and trust him to watch over them.

We also need to pray for sexual purity, for ourselves so we can set a good example for our children and so they know what sexual purity is, for our children so they have a proper mindset when it comes to sex and what is/isn’t appropriate, and for our children’s teachers and leaders so that they would not struggle with sinful sexual attitudes and desires towards children.

“Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.(Matthew 18:5-6, ESV)

Edited (11/8/11, 6:00 pm):

My wife just informed me that while I was writing this, she was at home reading an article from 2004 entitled 5 Tips for Preventing Child Sexual Abuse by Dr. Jim Burns, which recommended to:

  1. Learn as much information as you can about physical and sexual abuse.
  2. Listen and talk with your children.
  3. Teach your kids personal safety rules.
  4. Know the adults and teens in your children’s lives.
  5. Keep tabs on your kids.

Check out the full article. It’s brief but helpful.

She also recommended the book Rid of My Disgrace: Hope and Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault by Justin S. Holcomb & Lindsey A. Holcomb as an additional resource.

Edited (11/10/11, 4:00 PM): Added the quote from Naomi Schaefer Riley’s article to point #3 above.

Also, Albert Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has written a great article calling Christian leaders to action to prevent and report sexual abuse in churches and other institutions.

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