“Nobody wins. We’ve all lost,” one victim’s mother said after the guilty verdict was read on June 22, 2012. Yes, even though retired football coach Jerry Sandusky was convicted on 45 of 48 counts against him, the grieving mother of “Victim 6” got it right: There are no winners in this game. The sexual abuse case at Penn State should be soul-searching for everyone.
This is a strategic moment for healing, on multiple levels. If our nation—clearly more committed to cheering powerful athletes than protecting vulnerable children—doesn’t learn to grieve this, then a moral “vital sign” is being ignored.
But if Christian leaders don’t capitalize on this moment, they, too, are side-stepping an opportunity to normalize the discussion of sexually abused children for the community of faith—and for the abused walking among them.
We all know it: There was a collective moral failure at Penn. State. The “debris field” from sexual abuse is like that—broken lives strewn all over the place. The first lesson we can note is this: the danger of motivated blindness.
Reporting sexual abuse up the proverbial chain of command may look good on paper, but it isn’t working. When promotions are at stake, when sponsors are skittish, when tenures hang in the balance and administrations are intoxicated by big money—you have motivated blindness. The vulnerable child doesn’t stand a chance.
For the Church, the counterpart to motivated blindness is image management. As a male survivor, I know how it works because it’s part of my story.
The second key lesson is this: the problem of disenfranchised grief. The cultural shame that kept Sandusky’s victims silent for so long, including his own adopted son, also works its poison in the “sacred silence” of our churches. Faith communities promote the disenfranchised grief of victims when sexual abuse:
- is not holistically understood
- is not intentionally named
- is not publicly mourned
- is not educationally framed
- is not homiletically engaged
Seizing the moment
As Christian leaders, we don’t lack for pointed biblical texts on sexual violation. Rather, too often we lack prophetic courage.
Whether it’s David’s “power rape” of Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12), the gut-wrenching mourning of Tamar (2 Samuel 13) or Paul’s injunction that “no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister” (1 Thessalonians 4:6), we know what we need to do. Let’s determine to create and enforce written policies that address sexual abuse for our church communities. This is a moral imperative.
We have so much to learn from the Penn State abuse case. Now, what will society learn from our churches?