Only Child Sex Abuse Matters

November 12, 2011 at 1:20 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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It would be difficult to calculate the number of news stories I have heard in the last twenty-four hours about Joe Paterno being fired as the head football coach at Penn State for not reporting an alleged case of child sexual abuse to the police. Let me begin by saying that  if the accusations against Jerry Sandusky, Paterno’s subordinate in the Penn State football program, are true, it’s a great pity. I sincerely hope that these presumably still young people get the help they need to lessen the impact of what has been done to them.

For many years, however, it has seemed to me that there’s something excessive, something almost hysterical, about the reaction to child sex abuse in this country. I have argued that among my fellow liberal US Catholics, the invocation of the innocence of sex abuse victims is a way of fighting back against the institutional church’s endless invocation of the innocence of aborted fetuses. My victim is more innocent than your victim, so to speak. But of course, this explains nothing about the uproar at Penn State–though I have hardly heard a story about Joe Pa’s grievous omission that did not refer at least once to the Catholic Church.

One cause of my bafflement regarding the uproar over child sex abuse is that huge numbers of even more dreadful harms befall children all the time with very little response, never mind outrage, here in the US. One example is the death of children, mostly under the age of five, from  water-borne diseases. Four thousand children die every day–that’s approximately 167 an hour–from diseases like cholera, typhoid fever, hepatitis A and other diarrheal diseases, brought on by drinking dirty water. Some may think that sex abuse is far worse than death, but myself, I’d choose even a damaged life over an early death any day. Maybe the difference in response has to with the fact that the children dying from water-borne diseases don’t look like “ours” or that if we thought about it, there really is something we could do about such deaths. After all, providing clean water to the whole world would hardly dent the US military budget

But just for the sake of argument, let’s concede that white USies aren’t going to be as concerned about the deaths of millions of black and brown children elsewhere as they’re going to be over harm to their own children. Let’s turn, then, to the context of the current sex abuse upheaval, football. According the New York Times,

“About 5 to 6 percent of (college) football players and about 8 percent of National Football League players suffer concussions or other forms of brain injury. (That translates to 3,264 to 4,284 of the nearly 68,000 collegiate players and 130 of the 1,700 N.F.L. athletes.) Among the 1.2 million teens who play high school football, the group that accounts for most sports-related concussions, between 4 and 6 percent sustain concussions, or about 43,200 to 67,200 injuries a year. However, the real incidence is probably higher, as more than half of high school athletes who suffer concussions are suspected of failing to report the injury, researchers say.”

Even if only a smallish percentage of these players end up, say, with dementia, or Parkinson’s disease, this is a stupifying number.

According to NPR this morning, Joe Pa has been involved in the Penn State football program since 1949–that is, 62 years. Any idea how many Penn State players sustained brain injuries during that period? Ever hear of anybody getting fired for that?

My friend Tania suggests that comparisons like these are odious, that these other horrors–child deaths from water borne diseases, brain injuries–don’t lessen the horror of the sexual abuse of children. No doubt she is correct. Still, as I turn on the radio to hear the next news broadcast, I know very well what I’m going to be hearing about, and there’s something about that certainty that should give us pause, don’t you think?


1 Comment »

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  1. Good points, Marian. Reminds me of all the understandable horror over the deaths on 9/11/01 from the terrorist attacks. Far more people die every day, especially children, from violence of our own making and from disease from our own neglect, but there is no outcry. Also makes me think how warped U.S. values (and Church values) are—to protect the institution—and the winning record in the case of Penn State—over the safety of our young people. That even students would be outraged at the firings of their winning coach and college president rather than outraged that children were being molested boggles my mind. I know they came around and had a kind of memorial service for the victims, but the first reaction was reflective of the first priority: winning! I don’t fully understand the height to which sex abuse has risen as the crime to trump all other crimes, but I do think it’s far more important than a winning team or the good name of a faulty institution.


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