Why victims don’t tell: Sandusky case sheds light on complexities of sexual abuse

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The conviction of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky captured the nation’s attention and cast a spotlight on an endless question: Why don’t victims tell?

Tell a parent? Tell a teacher? Tell a friend? Tell someone?

We know the question well at LACASA. It comes up repeatedly in our line of work, which is to support and advocate for survivors—children, teens and adults who have endured heinous violations, most often at the hands of someone they trust.

The reasons many survivors remain silent are not black and white. They are complex.


Survivors often don’t tell because they think they did something wrong or didn’t do something right. Quite simply, they blame themselves.

They assume there is something they could have done to stop the abuser. They regret what they did or what they did not do. They wonder if the perpetrator would have stopped had they screamed louder or fought harder. They ask themselves if they could have avoided the situation, the location, the person.

Even survivors whose lives were threatened—or the lives of their loved ones—succumb to self blame.


Survivors of sexual crimes are burdened with a deep sense of shame. The thought of revealing what they have endured—in explicit detail—can be overwhelming. It means they must relive the experience. It means they must remember things they do not want to remember and tell things they do not want to tell.

Many survivors are hesitant to give voice to the violation, the pain, the degradation, and the feeling of shear helplessness.

Fragile and traumatized, some survivors just are not ready—physically, emotionally and psychologically—to come forward.


In the mind of the survivor, there is much to fear. If the perpetrator has threatened them, they will fear for their lives. If the abuser has threatened their family, they will fear for the lives of their loved ones.

They may fear the unknowable. What will happen when I tell? Will I be believed? Will I be supported? Will the abuser be arrested or remain free? Will friends ridicule me? Will people I care about shun me?

Telling a secret of this magnitude would set an intangible series of events into motion. The survivor, who is fragile and traumatized, may not be equipped to deal with the extreme anxiety that accompanies the act of coming forward and facing the unknown.


Some survivors do not tell to protect their loved ones. We know this to be especially true with children. They understand that speaking the truth will inflict pain on their parents, and they may choose to protect their families from the emotional upheaval.

For these survivors, the shame, blame and fear of what happened is their burden to carry…and theirs alone.


The public stature of a perpetrator plays prominently in a survivor coming forward. If the abuser is a respected member of the community or an admired friend of the family, the chances of a survivor speaking out are significantly reduced.

In the case of Jerry Sandusky, out of the 10 young men who came forward, only one revealed the crime to a parent at the time the abuse occurred. The mother did everything right. She believed her son. She went to the university. She went to the police. She reported, and persevered. But the authorities dismissed her claims as baseless.


A crime of this magnitude forever changes a child’s life view. The belief that the world is a safe place is shattered.

Children grappling with the aftermath of sexual abuse are in coping mode. The shock of their experience stuns them into silence. The process of healing and recovery takes tremendous energy. They do not possess the strength to undergo further trauma. It takes everything they have just to carry on.

How do we protect our children?

As parents, we do not want to instill our children with dread and apprehension about people, life and potential perpetrators. We can, however, use positive tools to help keep our children aware and empowered without overwhelming them.

Teach boundaries

It is essential to teach children about physical boundaries from an early age. Kids must be given knowledge about their bodies, made aware of “off limits”areas, and educated about appropriate touching.

Children should be taught how to say “no”…and mean it…when anyone crosses a physical boundary. It is important for them to understand that if someone touches them in an inappropriate area—or if they are asked to touch someone else in a private area— it is absolutely necessary to tell the parent.

Pay attention

One of the tragedies in the Sandusky case involved the testimony of a victim’s mother who recounted that her son repeatedly pleaded with her not to spend weekends at the Sandusky home. The mother insisted that her son go anyway. We must pay attention to what children are saying…or not saying.

Believe them

The single most damaging thing a parent can do in this situation is to dismiss, disregard or outright negate the child’s attempt to reveal the abuse. Survivors tell us that the failure of a parent to believe them is a wound that never truly heals.

Some parents hesitate to involve authorities because the child’s story seems fuzzy, disjointed or conflicting.

Research over the past several years shows that trauma impairs our neurobiology. In an act of self-preservation, the brain limits recall. Memories of the event may return in fragments or random waves. Some events may be blocked temporarily or permanently by a phenomenon known as traumatic amnesia.

LACASA’s counseling staff pursues advanced training in neurobiology trauma and its impact on survivors. As trauma professionals gain more understanding into physical and psychological coping mechanisms, we learn that the recounting of traumatic events rarely follows a linear and logical pattern.

Watch for red flags:

• A child appears uneasy, agitated or unusually quiet in the presence of a family member, family friend or acquaintance

• A child does not want to spend time in someone’s company

• A child physically shrinks away—or strongly resists—when this person tries to hug them, pick them up or hold them

• A child’s behavior changes—they were outgoing, now they appear shy; they had a good appetite, now they don’t eat; they were easy going, now they are agitated; they were energetic, now they are lethargic

• A significant difference in personal hygiene, sleeping habits, school performance, or emotional responses to situations is cause for concern and immediate exploration

When a child’s behavior suddenly changes, there is a reason. The root cause could be any number of things, but it is our job as adults to find out why and respond accordingly.

Abusers are dangerous con artists

Over the last three decades, our culture has invested a good deal of time teaching children about “stranger danger.” The sad fact is, more than 80% of child sexual abuse crimes are committed by someone the child knows.

Child sexual predators are cunning. They watch. They learn. They identify victims whom they view as vulnerable and controllable.

Interviews with hundreds of child sexual abusers reveal the same findings. Predators seek out children who are accessible and appear to have minimal parental engagement or supervision.

Sandusky founded his charity, “The Second Mile,” in 1977. It began as a group foster home for troubled boys. The charity’s mission later grew to help troubled boys who were from absent or dysfunctional families.

The coach created an ideal environment to commit sexual crimes against children. Nearly all of the victims testifying in the Sandusky trial were affiliated with Second Mile.

“Neighborhood” abusers build trust with the child and often with the family members or parental guardians. Perpetrators entice children and families with perks, special outings, or advantages that the family unit cannot—or does not—provide. Once trust is established, the abusers begin to test the sexual boundaries of the child.

In the Sandusky case, the coach had a lot to offer. As a Penn State insider, he came with a cache of prestige and connections. He repeatedly took boys on weekend outings to sports camps, out-of-town football games and college bowl events. Parents and guardians were eager for their children to be affiliated with Penn’s elite inner circle.

Sandusky preyed on everyone’s vulnerabilities.

What the Sandusky case taught us

We learned much from the Sandusky case, but unfortunately most of it is not new information. Experience has shown that it can take years for men of prominence to be exposed. The timeline of the Sandusky case established during the trial speaks volumes.

• The first allegations against Sandusky surface in1998, when a victim’s mother contacts university police about the coach’s inappropriate behavior with her son

• In 2000, a shaken Penn State janitor tells coworkers and his supervisor that he witnessed Sandusky performing oral sex on a young boy in the shower

• In 2002, a graduate student reports seeing Sandusky raping a child in the university’s football facility shower; the student initially tells his coach, then Coach Joe Paterno, and later reports the incident to Penn State’s athletic director as well as the vice president of campus police

• In 2008, another boy’s mother comes forward with allegations

• The county’s district attorney chooses to end the police investigation into Sandusky shortly after the mother’s complaint is filed

• In 2009, a teen boy lodges a sexual assault complaint against Sandusky, prompting the Pennsylvania attorney general to begin an investigation

• In 2011, Sandusky is charged with 48 counts of sexual abuse against 10 boys over a 15-year period

• Penn State President, Graham Spanier, and Coach Joe Paterno are fired four days later

• On June 22, 2012, Sandusky is convicted on 45 counts of criminal sexual abuse

Sadly, it often requires an alarming body of evidence and a series of victims to bring an abuser to justice. The molestation of children by priests—sometimes over decades—is a classic example. The Sandusky case is yet another.

One accusation should be enough to initiate a prompt, exhaustive and conclusive investigation.

We may never know the extent of how many boys Sandusky victimized. What we do know is that a man of his position was allowed to commit horrific abuse against children, while his peers, his colleagues, the campus police, and local law enforcement officials appeared to have turned a blind eye.

Current and former Penn State officials are now under investigation for perjury and failure to report abuse allegations. A grand jury is reviewing more sexual abuse allegations against Sandusky.

Our laws and our social fabric must change. Witnesses should not be afraid to speak up. They should, instead, be afraid not to.

Only when we create a no-tolerance policy for child abuse…only when we believe one victim, one parent and one witness…will we begin to lighten the shroud of blame, shame and fear that surrounds child molestation and rape.

It is our inherent duty to protect children, not perpetrators.


LACASA: A nonprofit organization in Livingston County that provides support, counseling, legal advocacy, and critical resources for survivors of child abuse, domestic violence and sexual assault. In addition, LACASA provides services and programs for family members and friends who have been impacted by these crimes. All services for survivors are provided at no charge.

LACASA 24/7 Crisis Line 866.522.2725


STEWARDS OF CHILDREN: LACASA’S Child Abuse Prevention (CAP) Council offers a Stewards of Children program several times a year. This workshop teaches professionals, parents and child caregivers how to responsibly identify, respond to and report suspected child sexual abuse.

CARE PROGRAM—LACASA’s Child Abuse Response Effort (CARE) investigates cases of child sexual abuse. Members of Livingston County’s child welfare agencies, law enforcement officials and the prosecutor’s office work together to conduct forensic interviews of suspected child abuse victims. The process is designed to safeguard the child from further trauma during the investigative process. All interviews are conducted in a non-threatening environment by specially-trained forensic examiners.


Nicole Matthews-Creech is the Director of Community Education, and Robin L. O’Grady is the Communications Director for LACASA of Livingston County.