Penn State scandal: We must all be accountable

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Patriot-News Op-Ed
by Jennifer Storm

Many of us who work in the criminal justice system have witnessed a systematic failure when it comes to reporting child sexual abuse. The Jerry Sandusky case is the latest example of that failure.

Sex crimes are often veiled in silence because they are so utterly horrific — making the act almost incomprehensible. But the victims never stop thinking about what happened to them. The violation is so deeply scarred within their souls that they are forever changed. They remember every action taken against them. Every moment. Every instance.

Surprisingly, not guilty verdicts often occur with these cases, even when juries are presented with DNA evidence and witness or victim testimony. When jurors are polled after shocking “not guilty” convictions, we often hear that the crime was absolutely inconceivable. Jurors just cannot believe that a family member, coach or clergy member would harm a child in that way.

It’s not surprising, however, that people have a hard time comprehending malevolence of this magnitude. It is horrific. But because of the appalling nature, many retreat into denial. As a result, the children who so bravely stepped forward to report their abuse are victimized all over again.

We must all open our eyes. We need to start removing the veil of denial. People are capable of these atrocities, and they happen every day. But there is a message to the victims who have already come forward, their families and loved ones, and those who are still sitting in the shadows: There is help out there.

Advocates, prosecutors, law enforcement officers and medical professionals join together every day to provide wrap-around support services to child victims who so bravely step forward and disclose abuse.

However, we, as advocates, cannot support victims alone. We need the commitment and buy-in from the highest level of government, universities and communities. I am encouraged by recent actions taken by the Penn State board of trustees — including the creation of a task force to review policies related to child safety and its recent commitment to zero tolerance, albeit 13 years too late.

I am hopeful that the task force will not only thoroughly review current policies, but also engage victim service leaders to ensure that the university is smartly committed to a strong zero tolerance stance on reporting violence on campus.

But zero tolerance cannot just be a policy — it needs to be enforceable. I implore Penn State to attach sanctions to any nonreporting of a violent crime such as this. It’s that simple. It is unacceptable to have a policy that is this important and have no recourse when someone fails a child. We cannot tolerate another failure of this magnitude. We must continue to hold people accountable.

We also need to strengthen the reporting requirements across Pennsylvania by considering similar sanctions when a mandated reporter fails in their duty. Consider this: Failure to report suspected child abuse is a summary offense — which is equivalent to a traffic violation. And that is only for individuals who are mandated to report.

But, what about everyone else? We all must be accountable — morally and legally. And therefore, it’s time for our laws to change. When the system works the way it’s intended to, victims receive justice. But it takes education, awareness and a strong commitment to ensure that the system works — and that responsibility falls on all of us.

Learn the signs of sexual abuse. Report it when you think you see it. Tell others to do the same. And most importantly, we must encourage our leaders and elected officials to strengthen reporting requirements and stiffen sanctions for noncompliance.

Now more than ever, the words of philosopher Edmund Burke ring true: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” This past week, we’ve seen what can happen when good men do nothing. Let’s all make sure it doesn’t happen again.

JENNIFER STORM is the executive director of the Victim/Witness Assistance Program in Dauphin County and author of several books on victimization and recovery. She also sits on the Victims Services Advisory Committee for the commonwealth of Pennsylvania and a Penn State alum.

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