When the guilty verdict came in on the sexual abuse trial of Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky I breathed a sigh of relief for the victims. As a survivor of sexual abuse over numerous months by my sixth grade teacher, Mr. John Stark, at the E.B. Laudenslager Elementary School in Hatfield, PA in 1961-62, I know first-hand the shame, guilt, frustration, disgust, and powerlessness engendered when a person in power/authority over you betrays the public trust out of predatory urges.
It took me seven years before I had the courage to tell another person about the abuse I suffered at the hands of my teacher. Only when the English rock group The Who released their rock opera Tommy – whose title character had been abused by his “wicked Uncle Ernie” – did I tell my college roommate that I had endured similar experiences when I was in sixth grade. It was another year and a different roommate who had also been molested (by his Boy Scout troop leader) before I met another survivor who shared his own story with me and helped me begin to realize that it wasn’t my fault; it didn’t happen to me because God was trying to punish me. Although the multiple encounters with Mr. Stark left me disgusted and cringing with shame, somehow the sense of guilt, thinking that I somehow deserved that punishment was even more scarring to my soul.
It was another 30 years before I took the opportunity to tell my parents what had happened. Their raising me to “obey those in authority” coupled with my church’s theology which often proclaimed a God of wrath and judgment kept me silent and shamed for years. If only I could have experienced a jury’s declaration of “guilty” – even years or decades later -, I think I would have found a sense of vindication for the burden I carried for so long. As it was, only after years of therapy, I had to visit the gravesite of Mr. Stark, my perpetrator, to confirm he was no longer able to create new victims. He was probably 60 when he preyed on me – and who know how many other victims – and while I knew he was definitely retired (the school had closed after consolidation), I wasn’t certain he was dead until I visited the cemetery and saw the grave marker.
I want to see Jerry Sandusky hauled off to prison – but only for a few years. I also know what prison is like and don’t wish that on anyone, including these predators of youth. I want him to have a taste of prison but then released under very strict house arrest or halfway house confinement where he will be monitored to prevent further victimization. For the sake of the survivors, any savings and assets he has accumulated should be used to pay for their therapy and as a token of restitution – if for no other reason than as public recognition of their suffering. The guilty verdict, I hope, will go a long way on the healing journeys they/we will need for decades to come.
Our society has come a long way from the days of silence I encountered in the early 1960s and I’m grateful for public awareness that has arisen from the on-going tragedy of denial and cover-up within the Roman Catholic Church and many other institutions which have protected pedophiles and sexual predators but we still have a long way to go to protect our children. May today’s verdict continue to move us from silence to solidarity.