How Paterno can promote healing

Joe Paterno is in a unique position to educate the nation, Jeffrey Pollard says.

Story highlights

  • Jeffrey Pollard: Former Penn State coach Joe Paterno should take responsibility for his actions
  • Doing so would facilitate healing for child sex abuse victims, he says
  • Students' actions will inhibit abuse victims from coming forward, he says

Victims of child sexual abuse woke up Thursday morning to television broadcasts of angry and violent Penn State students rioting because football coach Joe Paterno had been fired - effectively immediately.

Many of those abused were traumatized and victimized again, as they saw some people put the love of football above high and strict standards for protecting children.

The students' actions, past and future, will inhibit victims of child sexual abuse from coming forward to report their perpetrators. The fear, shame, contempt and loathing that many child sexual abuse victims face from perpetrators' defense attorneys and others, including skeptical or dismissive family members, are on display.

Jeffrey Pollard is the executive director of counseling and psychological services at George Mason University.

Child sexual abuse victims, especially those still young, must have enormous courage to report crimes against them, far more than it would have taken Paterno to call the cops. For many victims, it is ultimately concern about others who may be harmed by their perpetrator that leads to action.

Yet, there is hope and healing that can still spring from this multifaceted tragedy.

To its credit, the Penn State Board of Trustees got off to a good start when it sent a powerful though belated message: We will have zero tolerance for not reporting child abuse.

Paterno seems to have all but conceded that the board got it right, as he had already tendered his resignation for the end of the season and has not subsequently protested.

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Ironically, it is Paterno who is now uniquely able to help child sexual abuse victims summon the courage they need and to use this tragedy as a teachable moment that will benefit many. What should he do?

First, Paterno should tell the student demonstrators to knock it off and point out that he is not the victim here. Paterno has made millions as coach at Penn State, and by his own admission he made an enormous mistake in staying silent. He should ask the students to think of the victims as their younger brother, friend's brother, cousin or nephew -- and to show sensitivity and compassion in their actions.

Second, Paterno should call for others to speak up. In a plain spoken, unadulterated manner -- through a press conference or interview -- he should make clear how wrong he was and how sorry he is. In other words, he should take complete responsibility for his actions and inactions.

Third, Paterno should ask everyone -- Penn State community member or otherwise -- to notify police immediately if they have witnessed a child being abused or know of such a situation. He should also speak compassionately about what victims endure and urge them to also come forward.

Paterno is in a unique position to educate the nation that reporting child sexual abuse, and supporting those who have been harmed, often involves more courage than standing up to a blitzing all-American linebacker.

Late in life, baseball legend Mickey Mantle admitted that his hard drinking had harmed his family. It also led to alcohol-induced cirrhosis of the liver, and Mantle's untimely death at age 63. In a Sports Illustrated cover story and other forums, Mantle urged others not to do what he had done and to get treatment for alcoholism.

Through humility, and concern for others, it was Mantle's finest hour, on or off the field.

Paterno's finest hour, which would facilitate healing for child sexual abuse victims, greater public education and more offenders' being locked up could still be ahead of him.

More than any other play Paterno has had to call, this is clearly the most important one. But this is not a game: it is about children's lives. Let us hope and pray he gets it right.