The Pitt News

Editorial: Penn State letter dismisses sexual assault victims

By The Pitt News Editorial Board / May 11, 2016

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A university should never defend a legacy — no matter how famous the legacy — at the expense of its students’ well-being.

New reports from Penn State University’s Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal surfaced May 5, revealing that Joe Paterno may have known about Sandusky’s abuse as far back as the 1970s. According to one sentence in a court order on a related insurance-coverage case involving Penn State, a child allegedly reported his sexual abuse to Paterno in 1976.

The survivor named in the 1976 case came forward on CNN May 8, telling his story. He claims that Sandusky sexually abused him at 15 years old and, after telling his parents what happened, they called Penn State authorities. The now 60-year-old man said he spoke with Joe Paterno about the abuse at the time, a piece of information highlighted in Penn State’s messy back-and-forth with its insurer.

According to the court documents, there is no evidence that Paterno sent the information up the chain of command.

The survivor was one of 30 people involved in the $60 million settlement, meaning that Penn State did not take him to court to fight his claims, despite claiming that there was absolutely no truth in Paterno’s alleged cover-up.

In the meantime, out of the courtroom, higher-ups at the university are insisting on protecting Paterno’s legacy.

University President Eric Barron wrote a letter last week, which he posted on Penn State’s news site for all of Penn State to see, dispelling the “rumor, innuendo and rush to judgment that have accompanied the media stories surrounding these allegations.”

In the letter, Barron said there is no sufficient evidence proving allegations that Paterno ignored information about Sandusky’s abuse and that Penn State students should not be swayed by the “media’s sensationalized accounts.”

Since the sexual abuse allegations surfaced — allegations which, for the most part, nobody denies are true — Penn State has tripped over itself trying to keep any shame from falling on the good name of its most decorated coach.

Whether or not there is evidence that Paterno knew, it’s not Barron’s job to defend the now-deceased coach, or comment on ongoing litigation. It’s his job to protect his students and to make them feel safe.

Barron’s decision to honor Paterno’s reputation instead of recognizing the serious harm that a former student may have endured demonstrates a complete disregard for sexual assault survivors. In a university setting  — where 18.1 percent of students will experience sexual assault, according to the 2015 Penn State Sexual Misconduct Climate Survey of University Park — disregarding the validity of a survivor’s story is damaging to students all across Penn State’s campus.

By issuing a statement — that was seen by thousands of students, some of whom have no doubt experienced sexual assault themselves — and denying a survivor’s claims, Penn State is publicly shaming and further harming someone who has already gone through a traumatic experience.

According to the Sexual Misconduct Climate Survey, of the full-time students over 18 years old who were sexually assaulted last year, only 7.8 percent of the survivors reported their assault overall.

We should applaud the courage of survivors who are brave enough to come forward. If the former student did in fact tell Paterno what happened and nothing was done, the university should take responsibility for furthering the stigmatized nature of sexual assault on college campuses and make an effort to improve.

As a large university, Penn State should be leading the charge in ending pervasive rape cultures on campuses nationwide.

False reports for sexual assault are rare, falling between 2 and 10 percent. In discrediting a survivor’s accounts, the university is only reinforcing negative assumptions about sexual violence — like the misconception that anyone would lie about being sexually assaulted.

The survivor has a right to share his experience with the public. Shaming him and denying his account is not the appropriate response to his bravery. It only continues the toxic pressure to stay silent when powerful figures abuse that power.

When the NCAA reinstated Paterno’s victories, the immediate rallies and celebrations only added to a blind glorification of the former coach.

The university’s reputation is not what is at stake here —  but justice for sexual assault survivors on campuses across the country is. Nothing will  repair the damage that has been done, but addressing an issue as critical as rape culture on campus would be more useful than railing against the media for reporting on court proceedings.

If the president of a university doesn’t take sexual assault seriously, then what hope is there for his students?

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The University of Pittsburgh's Daily Student Newspaper
Editorial: Penn State letter dismisses sexual assault victims