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Learning from scandal: What Penn State’s failure to report sexual abuse can teach our University

September 13th, 2012

In the aftermath of one of the most talked-about scandals in history, Pennsylvania State University has quickly become the example of what not to do when reports of sexual abuse are discovered on a college campus. Administrators at JCU say they are confident that their staff is well-trained on how to avoid a similar scandal.

Almost a year ago, the world learned of the unthinkable sexual acts that took place inside the Penn State locker room and home of former Nittany Lion defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, with boys involved in his charity program, The Second Mile. Sandusky, although retired, still had access to many of the athletic facilities on campus.

According to the Freeh Report, conducted by former FBI director Louis Freeh, when Penn State graduate assistant Mike McQueary (who later became a coach at Penn State) walked into the locker room late one night in 2001, he heard an odd noise coming from the nearby showers. When he walked over to the showers, he concluded he saw a young boy, estimated to be about 10 years old, being sexually assaulted by Jerry Sandusky. McQueary reported what he had seen to then-head football coach Joe Paterno the next morning; Paterno then passed on this information to his superior, former athletic director Tim Curley.

However, it wasn’t until 10 years later that this incident resurfaced due to what seemed to be a lack of communication and a cover-up in reporting the situation further. Based on the Freeh Report, the lack of communication by the highest ranking authorities at Penn State allowed a child molester to get away with his crimes for years.

Over the summer, everyone witnessed the finale to the scandal that invaded television sets, Twitter feeds and radios for well over eight months, as a jury found Sandusky guilty on 45 counts of child sex abuse.

Following serious NCAA sanctions and media criticism, Penn State is now working to get the negative light off of them and build a brighter future. Part of that healing process is educating people and other universities on how to handle issues of sexual abuse.

This offers JCU, as a university with an NCAA athletic program, a chance to reflect and consider how its staff and administrators would handle a similar situation.

JCU’s vice president for student affairs, Mark McCarthy, explained, “[It is University policy] that all coaches and staff in the athletic department at John Carroll have received training on sexual harassment [which includes] sexual abuse and assault.  This training includes information on the forms of sexual harassment as well as the clear expectation that all forms of sexual abuse be reported immediately to Campus Safety Services. CSS [is required to] report all sex offenses to the University Heights Police Department, with whom they collaborate for thorough investigation and prosecution.”

Assistant athletic director Chris Wenzler said that while these policies had already been in place at JCU for years, they have been brought to everyone’s highest level of consciousness in the wake of the Penn State scandal.

Skepticism arose at Penn State during the 2001 incident, because although it was reported to some of the higher up officials at the university, the execution of dealing with it seemed to fall through.

“When you work with a group of people for a long period of time [and they are] accused of something as heinous as this, I think there is an initial shock value that does take place. That being said, the shock has to wear off enough that you have to act upon something,” Wenzler said.

“I think what happened [at Penn State] was that people were more worried about reputations, about the big business college athletics has become, that in a quiet community such as State College, maybe they felt that it was something that would just go away, and be dealt with in-house,” added Wenzler. “The problem is if you don’t deal with it effectively in-house, […] it’s not just personal [reputations] but reputations of an entire university, people that had nothing to do with this, though they bought into a certain value system within a university; and anyone walking around with a Penn State degree has now been touched by this [as well],”

JCU’s mission statement outlines those values in which the community here invests.

“Unlike Penn State, which is a Division I football program, at John Carroll, the athletic program is Division III – no scholarships are offered to athletes, and participants truly are student-athletes,” McCarthy said.  “As a Jesuit Catholic university, our mission is focused on the care of each person as well as their development as whole persons.”

The situation that occurred at Penn State showed the world how the act of one can impact the lives of many. Both McCarthy and Wenzler believe the JCU faculty and staff have put themselves in a position where they feel they are able to handle criminal behavior in an appropriate way. By requiring staff members to be educated on issues such as sexual harassment and having a policy for reporting such crimes, they hope to prevent major problems that may occur from escalating any more than they need to. Nevertheless, college officials say it offers the University a chance to learn.

“I think the lesson learned is that by acting swiftly, acting courageously, acting emphatically with the victim being the person you are acting on behalf of, […] at the very best, you can set an example that you are who you report to be as a university,” said Wenzler.