In Defense of Joe Paterno

I want to make this very clear: what Joe Paterno did was wrong. With the exception of the victims, what everyone did in that situation was wrong. The parents who suspected. The campus police who heard reports. The administration. Everyone.

But here is the defense and it’s a weak one: You all would have done the same thing. I know you would have, because I saw the same thing happen in my own family.

Six years ago, one of my sisters reported that she had been repeatedly molested by a family member. She reported this after my parents moved her thousands of miles away from her abuser. She waited because she was afraid. And she was afraid because he made her afraid. He told her she’d tear the family apart, and my little sister loved her family and didn’t want to lose us. So, she struggled to carry that burden until the nightmare welled up inside of her and terrorized her nights and the truth came tumbling out.

Initially, my parents reported the family member to the police. But they didn’t press charges. He was released. There is nothing on his record. And years later, when my sister was old enough to go to the police herself, the statute of limitations had run out. To that overwhelming question, WHY–these are the answers I heard:

“Can you imagine what the press would do with a story like that?”

“We don’t actually know what really happened.”

“He’s getting counseling.”

“He’s found forgiveness in the Lord.”

“We need to forgive him. God has forgiven him.”

“Your sister doesn’t want to tear the family apart.

I was a senior in college, when all of this was happening. I remember clutching my cell phone in my room listening these excuses for why this man was not going to jail. I grabbed the cream-colored cement wall, to make sure it was real. One day I had been told about horrible abuse. The next day, I had been told that we needed to forgive and move on. After I hung up, I ran to the campus counseling office and asked to speak with someone.  “I think I might be going crazy,” I told the counselor. “But I can’t just forget.”

Over the course of the next six years I learned that this is what abusers do, they create fear.  And this is what those around them do, they live in denial. Dave and I refuse to forget and we refuse to “get along.” We will not see this man. He will never meet our daughter or any of our children. And more importantly, I talk about what happened. Because, isn’t that really the hardest part?

Dave and I are frequently asked to “just forgive.” But it’s not a matter of forgiveness–Forgiveness is not forgetting and forgiveness is not denial. Forgiveness is what I do every morning when I wake up and choose not to live in bitterness. It’s that daily choice I make to pray for the best for his heart and his family and for justice.

It’s easy to judge my family. It’s easy to judge Joe Paterno and Penn State. It’s easy because it’s not your family. It’s not your brother, father, husband, uncle or cousin. If it was…I’m sure it would be different. He seems like a nice guy. He would never do anything like that. You know him well and he’s not an abuser. It’s possible the kid was mistaken. Someone is trying to make him look bad.

Child sexual abuse is reported 80,000 times each year. Eighty-five percent of offenders are family members. Rarely are those cases ever prosecuted. Rarely do those abusers ever face justice. And yes, the vast majority of those abusers abuse more than once. But that person you know…he’s different.

Usually, my blog is my place to write amusing anecdotes, have contests, post hilarious videos. I’ve been biting my nails all week, wondering if I should say something. I asked Dave. He’s my voice of wisdom when I feel lost. This is what he said: “You believe in the truth. So, if you need to say it. You need to say it.”

So, I said it, I said the truth.

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