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Penn State scandal casts much-needed spotlight on child sex abuse

November 9, 2011 |  6:15 am

Evil

Some reactions to the unfolding child abuse sex scandal engulfing Penn State are predictable, specifically those targeting former coach Jerry Sandusky, who faces allegations that he sexually abused eight boys over a 15-year period. Some reactions are more surprising.

Take the response from Pamela Pine, founder of Stop the Silence: Stop Child Sexual Abuse.

She says the scandal could become the wake-up call the country desperately needs. It could be a turning point, she says, the moment when America finally stops looking the other way.

FULL COVERAGE: Jerry Sandusky scandal

Child sexual abuse is far more common than many people think, with estimates varying dramatically, according to Advocates for Youth. But there continues to be a "conspiracy of silence" that envelops sex abuse allegations, Pine said in an interview with The Times.

Many times, children are afraid of telling others about the abuse. When they do, adults often tell them that they were mistaken -- or were somehow responsible, she said. Some kids are even urged to keep quiet for fear of bringing shame and embarrassment to the family.

"People are very, very afraid of it," she said. "The level of shame and discomfort and fear surrounding this issue is enormous. Adults are covering up for other adults, they don't understand the issue, they don't know who is responsible, they don't know how to deal with it."

Pine said she was reserving judgment on coach Joe Paterno and other Penn State officials because the unfolding sex scandal remained under investigation.

But she said she believed it was clear that many adults did as little as possible after learning about unusual activity involving Sandusky, who maintains his innocence.

According to one graphic allegation, Sandusky was seen forcing himself on a 10-year-old boy in a Penn State shower. And it appears that no one alerted authorities outside the school to any suspicious activities. Rather, there are suggestions that the shower allegation was covered up.

"If there was any sense that there was impropriety going on with youngsters, somebody needed to call the authorities," instead of passing it up the chain of command, Pine said. "From where I sit, everybody who knew about this is responsible."

She said the lesson from Penn State was this: If you see abuse or you suspect abuse, report it.

She acknowledged that some adults might fear tarnishing another with a false accusation. "I understand, it's a pretty heavy-duty allegation if you're wrong. But what if you are right?" Report it and leave it up to law enforcement to figure out what happened, she said.

Pine said that child sex abuse remained a taboo subject, much like breast cancer, domestic abuse and mental illness were years ago. But then society cast a spotlight on those ills; now we no longer blame the victim or the family -- and we no longer cover it up, she said.

So many of society's problems -- prostitution, violent crime, drug use, high school dropout rates and teenage pregnancy rates -- can be traced to a root in early childhood sexual abuse, she said.

"Society wrings its hands about all of these things and says, 'What should we do, what should we do?' And I say, 'One thing we can do is deal with child sexual abuse,' " she said.

She said she was always surprised at the public outrage over "stranger danger," in which a stranger abducts a child off the street and abuses them. But statistics show that such assaults account for a small percentage of the child abuse cases in America.

The vast majority -- more than 90% -- of abuse occurs at the hands of someone that the victim knows. Abuse can include fondling a child, showing him or her porn, taking provocative pictures of them and more violent acts, including rape.

"It's usually not a one-time occurrence, either," she said, and abusers are clever enough to choose "at risk" children as victims. (Sandusky is accused of, among other things, using his own charity for at-risk children to procure victims.)

Asked why there isn't more outrage, Pine said: "It's kids. They don't vote. They don't have a voice. The adults are afraid, they cover it up ... and it continues to go on. It's not going to change without some kind of major push and enough people getting angry enough and disgusted enough that something changes. I'm really happy that the media is jumping on this."

She said she thought the turning point might have been the investigation into sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. But she feared that some people mistakenly thought the abuse was limited to that institution.

But abuse is much more prevalent, she said.

And maybe this is the wake-up call the country needs.

RELATED:

 Document: Sandusky grand jury report

Abuse allegations detailed in Penn State scandal

L.A. Times sports columnist Bill Plaschke: Joe Paterno should resign

-- Rene Lynch
Twitter / renelynch

Photo: Lauren Acquaviva, left, husband Michael and 10-month-old son Matthias protest outside an administrative building on the Penn State campus Tuesday. Credit: Matt Rourke / Associated Press


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