While testifying about the abuse he had experienced, one of Jerry Sandusky's victims was asked why he had never reported the crime. “Who would believe kids?” he asked. Sandusky is an “important guy.” So like his fellow witnesses—and so many other child sexual abuse victims—he didn't tell a soul.
Sandusky's 45-count conviction represents a watershed for all victims of child sexual abuse.
Sandusky's victims—whose pained, halting, and strikingly similar testimony led to the conviction—described how pedophiles prey on children who trust and look up to them. The jury believed those victims, and they can now begin healing and rebuilding their lives.
The conviction frees them from the troublesome media label “alleged victims,” which reflected the judge's stated view that there were no victims until a conviction was achieved. As state and federal law confirm, there ARE victims prior to conviction in a particular case, and they have rights in the criminal justice system.
As victims exercised their rights in this case, their suffering was recognized and their accounts of Sandusky's grievous crimes were validated.
The Sandusky trial underscores the courage required to testify about such crimes. “The victims… have shown great strength and courage,” said Pennsylvania Attorney General Linda Kelly, by “candidly and sometimes chillingly telling their stories, not only to the jury in a packed courtroom… but also to the entire world.”
As victim number one told the jurors, “I knew…[that] if I was going to grow up and put this all behind me, I was going to have to tell the truth. So, that’s what I did.”
Sandusky's conviction has also freed countless other child sexual abuse victims from isolation, shame, and hopelessness. After the Sandusky indictment last November, our National Crime Victim Bar Association and victim service agencies throughout the country received massive numbers of calls from victims who wanted to tell their stories and seek justice for the crimes they experienced.
Some of these crimes happened decades ago. The verdict will likely encourage many more victims to come forward.
The Sandusky verdict means that justice for these victims is achievable. Before the verdict, the greatest fear for victims and their families was that Sandusky would walk away a free man. The verdict holds Sandusky accountable for his crimes and offers hope that more child sex abusers will be brought to justice.
The Sandusky case, as well as the Catholic Church child sex abuse scandal, has suggested the true scope of child sexual abuse. Studies show that 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys are victims of sexual abuse, and an estimated 78,188 cases of reported child sexual abuse occurred in 2003.
Yet we know that the vast majority of these crimes are not reported; the numbers don't begin to reflect the actual prevalence of child sexual abuse.
The Sandusky case also exposed the methods by which predators establish power over children's lives. They systematically “groom” their victims, often showering them and their families with gifts and special favors, such as football tickets, access to star players, and camping trips. Sandusky preyed on children served by Second Mile, the charity he founded to help disadvantaged youth. Like so many predators, Sandusky built a reputation as a benefactor—rather than a destroyer—of youth.
The Sandusky and Catholic Church cases should launch a national conversation about protecting our youth from predators. Adults should learn to recognize the signs of child abuse, be ready to listen and believe, and to help the victims get the support they need.
For children, the support of caring, genuinely trustworthy adults is invaluable in helping to break the power that predators have over them. Adults should report abuse when they suspect it and insist that authorities thoroughly investigate all reports of abuse.
Also, child sexual abuse victims should always have access to justice in both criminal and civil court. As the Sandusky case shows, it often takes years for child sexual abuse victims to recognize the impact of crimes that occurred when they were children.
Jurisdictions with narrow statutes of limitations should reform their laws so that abusers can be held accountable whenever victims are ready to come forward.
“My hope,” wrote former NFL linebacker LaVar Arrington and mentor to victim # 4 when he played at Penn State, “is that everyone—from the people who didn't pay much attention, to those who were outraged by what happened, to the media that covered this story so closely—will continue to address the problems surrounding the protection of children.”
The Sandusky verdict means hope, affirmation and justice for the Penn State victims. May this victory renew our commitment to protect every child in our nation and hold all predators accountable for their crimes.
Mai Fernandez is executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime. She welcomes comments from readers.