Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: The Penn State Scandal: The Complicated Impact on Victims of Child Sexual Abuse

As the Penn State Sexual Scandal continues to unfold and dominate the media, people everywhere are expressing shock, anger, anguish and loss.  College Football, a beloved symbol of healthy American values, has been fractured by the disillusionment suffered when trust and safety are gone and children are no longer safe. Driven by the news and social media updates, people everywhere are asking:  How could it happen?  Why wasn’t it stopped? Who should be blamed? Who was protecting the kids?

There is one group that is not surprised.  They have been silently asking these questions for years. They are the countless adults who were sexually abused as children.

For many of them the Penn State Scandal is emotionally complicated. Whether they have identified and come forth as victims, embraced the power of healing or live with the memory of abuse on the edges of awareness, they are watching a nation grapple with an unthinkable crime – child sexual abuse, a crime of betrayal and the destruction of innocence -“ soul murder.“ For them the response to this scandal carries with it the possibility of both positive and negative impact.

Bearing Witness

We understand that a nation’s willingness to recognize and tell the truth about terrible crimes is necessary for the healing of victims and the restoration of the social order. Whether a victim of the Penn State scandal or a child victim from many years ago, victims will benefit from knowing that in this case a nation is trying to recognize the suffering, give voice to the outrage and seek justice and change.

Healing has no timeline and social reaction has been shown to play a major role in reducing the degree of post traumatic response. As such, the public expression of concern by so many may be healing for generations of victims. For some it may even allow disclosure never before dared.

Cynicism and Doubt

For some victims, trust is more difficult. Having been betrayed too many times, they doubt there is real concern for the victims and fear that it has already been eclipsed by the pain and losses of the coaches, team, town and sports figures associated with the scandal. They know too well that when the smoke clears, it is rarely the victims that hold people’s concern.

They actually fear a painful disappointment. They have suffered abuse, known of the cover-ups, embraced the recognition of the crime and then felt betrayed again by the lack of justice or reparation.  With cynicism they keep their eye on this event – they need to see it unfold differently- but doubt that it can.

Retraumatizing vs. Revisiting

  • We know that trauma echoes trauma and that time becomes irrelevant as one is cast into the immediacy of an affective scar of terror, helplessness, shame and physical pain.
  • Those who have sought professional help or have worked on their trauma may know that such feelings will pass or will offer an opportunity for re-visiting and re-integrating a childhood nightmare with the strength and safety of their adult self.
  • Some may even find that this event underscores the need to seek help for a secret that have suffered with alone – for too long.

Stigmatized vs. Supported

Closely following the Penn State Scandal,  the most difficult thing for one adult survivor of child abuse was to hear someone in the media predict that the Penn State victims “would be scarred for life.”

Suddenly she went from feeling supported to feeling stigmatized. The efforts she had made to find a way to heal from the unthinkable assault of her childhood seemed called into question.  She felt self-conscious and exposed in a way she had almost forgotten. It didn’t take long, but she needed to consider the reality of her strong and assertive present self to put those feelings into perspective.

In face of the Penn State Scandal, many victims will walk a fine line between feeling supported and feeling stigmatized. Unfortunately we know that media, familial, parental, spousal, medical and legal response can often impose a secondary victimization on those who have already suffered. In their efforts to respond they can marginalize the victim. In their offers of help they can imply permanent damage.

One hopes that both the victims and those who respond to them will come to recognize the capacity to heal and even grow from life’s most intolerable situations. The antidote to the “ stigma” of child abuse is the personal acceptance and wisdom of a survivor.

The Meaning of Healing

Recognizing the impact that the Penn State Scandal has had on the country and everyone closely involved, it is worth underscoring the complex impact on the present victims and those who have personally experienced such abuse.

Perhaps this unfortunate scandal will offer an opportunity for healing. Perhaps even when the media moves on and people forget, the victims now and then will remember there is reason to connect, trust and believe in themselves.