Much has already been written about the effect that the Penn State child molestation scandal will have on Penn State’s legendary football program and the legacy of its coach, Joe Paterno. I really don’t care what happens to the Penn State football program, and not just because I’m a University of Michigan alumna. What matters to me is that children were abused at the hands of coaches. Parents entrusted their boys to coaches from the Penn State program, believing those men had their children’s best interests at heart, and those men abused the trust of those parents and those boys. It sickens me to my core.
My ten-year-old son is the same age as one of the victims in the Penn State matter, the boy who, according to the Daily Beast, was raped in the Nittany Lions showers. My son’s sport is baseball. Every summer for the past 5 years, he has attended a baseball camp on the campus of a college on Long Island. A bus picks him up every morning and brings him back every evening. Every day, I trust that he will make it safely from the bus to the camp, that he will be supervised by caring and competent staff while he is at camp, that he will make it safely from the camp to the bus, and that the driver of the bus will return him safely home.
When I think of the harm he might suffer at camp, I think of him getting beaned by a line drive, or getting hurt during horseplay wiht his friends. I’ve never thought about him being molested by his coaches, some of whom are ex-Major League Baseball players. It never occurred to me to check his coaches against sex offender registries. But even if checking against sex offender registries wouldn’t have protected the boys in Jerry Sandusky’s program from a serial child rapist.
Nick Chiles wrote on My Brown Baby about the chilling effect that scandals like these have on mentoring programs for boys and young men like my son whose fathers are not a part of their lives. The Penn State scandal and the seemingly never-ending scandals of young men being molested by church officials, be they Roman Catholic priests or megachurch leaders like Bishop Eddie Long, are frightening.
Single mothers like me seek out these programs because we know our sons benefit from the discipline of organized sports and the influence of male role models. Yet we see the failure to prosecute religious offenders who hide behind the power of their church and loyal parishioners or members. We see sports figures who either are shielded or scapegoated by schools who would prefer to sacrifice children rather than see their own fortunes diminished. And we wonder: are we naïve and perhaps even foolish to continue to trust our children to these programs? Should there be stricter guidelines and greater oversight? Would that be enough to protect our children?
Most children who participate in these mentoring programs benefit from the guidance and leadership of men who volunteer their time to help young people. Yet, in the wake of these scandals, I think of those mothers who trusted their boys to Penn State or Bishop Long. Although we have never had a single issue, does that mean we won’t, or just that it hasn’t happened yet? My son’s camp is associated with a world-class institution – but so is Penn State.
My son, and boys like him, are the ones who stand to lose. It’s despicable that individual and institutional reputations matter more than the lives of children. Even with children, society says “Don’t get raped” rather than “Don’t rape.” It’s an unfair burden to place upon children and their parents, this obligation to avoid getting raped. But in a society that punishes even the worst child rapists lightly, if at all, it seems one has no choice but to shoulder the burden, and hope for the best.