The Penn State scandal casts a long shadow, doesn’t it? It’s a fitting backdrop for the news about the drunken exploits of the BU hockey team — another example of what happens when a college sports program grows so insular, so powerful, that it operates outside of the rules.
And of course, it looms large when we talk about kids and sexual abuse.
Jerry Sandusky isn’t mentioned in the new manual for state teachers and school staff who are required, by law, to report suspected child abuse. But at the Children’s Trust Fund of Massachusetts, the quasi-state agency that produced the manual, the Penn State story felt chillingly well-timed. Sandusky illustrates a concept that the manual underscores, disturbing but also intuitive: In order to gain access to kids, abusers have to manipulate adults.
“Pedophiles count on us, to be honest, to collude with them in our denial,” said Suzin Bartley, executive director of the fund. “And that allows them to fly under the radar screen undetected.”
The concept is known as “grooming,” and it amounts to a public relations campaign: Abusers give off the impression that they’re caring and kind, not at all the type to hurt a child. This sheds some light — though not sympathy — on how officials at Penn State could have denied the warning signs about Sandusky, who harbored what look like absurdly close relationships with children, complete with overnight trips and sleepovers in his home.
In order to gain access to kids, abusers have to manipulate adults.
After all, he met the kids through his charity, dedicated to at-risk youth. For awhile, it turned out to be the perfect place to hide.
“You would not be surprised to find a drunk in a bar,” Bartley said. “Then why do we try to act surprised when we find a pedophile where kids are?”
Yes, this all feels a little bit like paranoia, another thing to fret about at the start of the school year, until you consider the news from Massachusetts in recent months alone. The deeply disturbing child pornography conviction of a father of three in Milford. The charges against a former official at a Beverly private school, now on leave from a public school guidance counselor position.
Anthony Rizzuto, a coauthor of the manual, points to a national study out of Hofstra University, which estimates that 10 percent of all public school children will be abused by someone in their schools at some point between kindergarten and grade 12. And Bartley notes that a hefty percentage of pedophiles were, themselves, abused as children — so stopping abuse means curtailing a cycle of pain.
The good news, Rizzuto said, is that reports of abuse are down nationwide, perhaps because of growing awareness and a sense that institutions can’t hide. Rizzuto served for years as the director of the Archidiocese of Boston’s Office of Child Advocacy, created in response to the clergy sex abuse scandal.
The church hired him, in part, because of his background in industrial psychology: how organizations adapt to change and handle crises. He found that in some institutions, a well-meaning person, suspecting abuse, isn’t sure how far to push. At Penn State, Rizzuto notes, “there was actually somebody who saw it happening, but he didn’t know what to do. He went to a superior but the superior decided not to do anything about it.”
The manual, which goes to all schools in the Commonwealth, recommends setting up a “child protection team” to review concerns, so that teachers aren’t on their own. It notes that an accuser can also go directly to the Department of Children and Families. And it recommends a code of conduct for school staff, barring adults from accompanying a child to the bathroom alone, or staying alone with a child who is waiting to be picked up, or driving a child home without another adult in the car.
It all amounts to what Cynthia Crosson-Tower, the manual’s coauthor, calls “a handholding for teachers — you’re doing the right thing, you need to do it, no matter how difficult it is.” Educators take their role as reporters seriously, she said. But sometimes they need a little extra support, and a reminder of the high cost of denial.