A few thoughts on three stories

Penn State University

The guilty verdict against former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky offered measured closure to wounds that painfully reopened with Judge Louis Freeh’s report on Penn state’s handling of the Sandusky case. The significant and tragic failures of oversight from some of the most powerful people at Penn State University revealed intentional concealment of criminal behavior. The fact that this was done to avoid bad publicity and upsetting donors is appalling.

But a side narrative to this tragedy that is not getting as much attention is the countless others associated with Penn State who not only had nothing to do with the Sandusky case but are horrified by any association with it. Let’s not forget that Penn State is a big place with more than football. Those proud of their Penn State education should not be made to feel it is tarnished by what happened in the football program.

The significant consequences levied against the University by the NCAA raised another painful story for current players. I feel for those who have worked hard to make it to collegiate football but must endure the consequences of actions they had nothing to do with. Perhaps the biggest take away is that a few people in powerful places making bad choices can hurt many. And the lives most tragically affected were the young boys brutally molested by someone they trusted.

Aurora, Colorado

It’s hard to get my mind around the senseless murder of 12 people and wounding of 58 others in the Aurora, Colorado Theater. One young mother lost her 6-year-old daughter, her “miracle baby” she was carrying and has recently been told that she will likely spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair.
 When I consider the tragic loss and suffering, it seems overwhelming . My first response is to pray for those affected. Yet I also realize that dramas of human suffering raise deeper questions about faith. Obviously these are not matters to discuss in the initial experience of loss, but at some point hearts travels in this direction.

How do we reconcile suffering with belief in a God whose love is so great that He is love and who is so powerful that He is all-powerful? Skeptics offer answers ranging from atheism to deism but these alternatives only lead to deeper levels of despair. If I must choose between “no God” or “a God who means well but either cannot or will not help,” I am only left with more perplexing questions. I am not willing to sacrifice the intellectual integrity necessary to accepting these conclusions.

When I struggle to reconcile faith in God with what seems to be gratuitous evil, I remind myself of the sad back-story to our suffering and my personal culpability in it. This world is not what God originally provided for us but one corrupted by our sin. It doesn’t require much imagination to believe that, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). The verdict for sinning against the Creator is death (see: Romans 6:23).  This does not mean that the manner of each death is a person “getting what he deserves.” Yet it does mean that all humans will experience the verdict. If God operated the world on a principle of immediate justice toward evil, none of us would be spared. This is what the Psalmist referred to in saying that God “has not dealt with us as our sins deserved” (Psalm 103:10).

No one is righteous enough to claim a perfectly good life from God. But God offers us the certainty that there is an amazing end-story for those whom he loves. This will happen when, “God’s dwelling place is among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:3-4).


It’s difficult to transition from the story in Aurora, Colorado to the controversy about Chick-Fil-A but I must note that those whom I know who participated in the “Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day” did not do it to oppose gay marriage but to support a business being threatened with a hateful boycott. It was a way of saying that a business owner should be free to say what he believes about marriage without being threatened. If a business owner said he opposed traditional marriage, I don’t believe it’s right to organize a boycott against his business. This is about freedom of speech without threat from hateful people — no matter the issue.

Tolerance is about treating others with respect when you disagree with them. Telling people they’re not permitted to disagree is coercion, not tolerance.
The huge turnout at Chick-Fil-A is a great reminder that many people in this nation know the difference between coercion and tolerance.

Steve Cornell

Live press conference on Penn State issue

Freeh report released on Penn State’s handling of Jerry Sandusky’s child sex abuse:

Failures of government and oversight evidenced in decisions from the most powerful people at Penn State University to conceal important information. Reasons could include desires to avoid the consequences of bad publicity, legal investigations, upsetting donors and the university community. There are more red flags than could be counted. 

See also: Profile of an abuser

A sad week in Pennsylvania

Tonight (6-22-2012) a guilty verdict was brought against former Penn State assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky. Another deranged sexual predator who leveraged his position to prey on small boys will never know freedom again. I wish we didn’t have to pay for his room and board! 

On the same day, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a Catholic priest was found guilty of covering up child sexual assault allegations, often by transferring guilty priests to other parishes. Institutional accountability had to come from the government because it didn’t exist in the Church. Surely Penn Sate is thinking about the legal battles ahead as it faces institutional accountability (something missing among coaches). The protect your own mentality is reaping what it has sown. A coach and a priest found guilty on the same day in Pennsylvania — but there is more. 

Earlier this week, our local paper updated the case against Steven Geyer, a former assistant principal of Lancaster Mennonite High School. Geyer confessed to a County Judge that he sexually assaulted male international students from South Korea whom he hosted at his home. He threatened to send them back to their countries if they reported his sexual assaults on them. Religious communities and schools need more internal accountability. Now the government will step in and provide it. 

There seems to be no end to these horrible stories of men sexually assaulting young boys. Parents everywhere will think twice before entrusting their children with authority figures like coaches, priests or even teachers. What a sad reality! 

If you’ve been sexually assaulted, it’s very important to work through your pain with a wise counselor experienced in helping abuse victims. I pray that you will have the courage to confront the past and experience greater levels of freedom from the damaging effects of abuse. As one who has walked closely with others through this process, I assure you that there is hope for a brighter tomorrow!   

Praying for the victims and their families,

Steve Cornell

More Resources:

Sexual abuse or Sexual assault?


I am sure that by now you’ve heard about the shake down at Penn State University. One of their former football coaches, Jerry Sandusky (once heir apparent to Coach Joe Paterno) was charged with sexually assaulting eight boys (ages 7-14) over a 15-year period. Last week, the school board announced the abrupt termination of the Univeristy President and long time Head football coach, Joe Paterno. It appears clear that, for years, some of the higher-ups at Penn State empowered a monstrous sexual predator with authority and influence that he leveraged to prey on vulnerable children.

I posted about this last week under the title “Don’t forget victims of sexual abuse,” but this morning, a letter to the editor in our local paper caught my attention. The letter was titled: “It was sexual assault, not sexual abuse.” The writer (Paul Hambke) made an excellent point of correction that reminded me of how much our words and labels matter. Most of the media has spoken and written about the Penn State scandal by using the words: sexual abuse.  But, as Hambke notes, this wording does “a great disservice to the child survivors in the Penn State case and all survivors.” He explained that, “To use the word ‘abuse’ suggests there is a proper way to ‘use’ a child for sexual purposes and that is absurd.” If it had involved an adult victim (male or female), he noted that we would have called it sexual assault

Is it possible that the words we use as labels say more about the way we prefer to think or not to think about issues?

The writer suggested that, “Society avoids the use of the phrase ‘sexual assault’ when referencing child survivors for many reasons, including our desire to avoid thinking about it, to avoid admitting predators exists and somehow, for whatever purpose, for whatever goal, to diminish what occurred. Society uses euphemisms such as ‘fondled,’ ‘touched,’ ‘messed with,’ ‘diddled,’ and ‘abused,’ when what actually occurred was, purely and simply, rape” (source: Lancaster Newspapers).

At first glance, I wasn’t sure if the letter writer was just parsing words in an unnecessary way. But I think he makes a valid point for all of us to consider. In fact, I am changing the title to my post from last week to reflect his point. “Don’t forget victims of sexual assault.”

The Catholic Church and Penn State University

Another column on the subject made distrubing parallels between the inaction of higher-ups at Penn State University and the inaction of leaders in the Catholic Church when a string of their priests were exposed for sexually assaulting children.

Under the title, “The Devil and Joe Paterno” New York Times columnist, Ross Douthat, made the following comparison between the higher-ups in each institution starting with Church leaders: 

“They believed in their church. They believed in their mission. And out of the temptation that comes only to the virtuous, they somehow persuaded themselves that protecting their institution’s various good works mattered more than justice for the children they were supposed to shepherd and protect.”

“I suspect a similar instinct prompted the higher-ups at Penn State to basically ignore what they described as Jerry Sandusky’s “inappropriate conduct,” and persuaded Paterno that by punting the allegation to his superiors he had fulfilled his responsibility to the victimized child. He had so many important duties, after all, and so many people counting on him. And Sandusky had done so much good over the years …”

Yet, as Douthat concluded, “No higher cause can trump that obligation — not a church, and certainly not a football program. And not even a lifetime of heroism can make up for leaving a single child alone, abandoned to evil, weeping in the dark.” (source: New York Times Sunday Review)

Let us weep and pray on behalf of the victims of sexual assault,

Steve Cornell

Don’t forget victims of sexual assault

Multiple allegations of sexual abuse against former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky should bring national attention to the subject. While an entire University has been thrown into unimaginable controversy, reaching a new level with the firing of their beloved and legendary head football coach, Joe Paterno, let us not forget the victims of sexual assault.

I admit that sexual abuse is an issue I didn’t think I would encounter very often in pastoral counseling. During a graduate course in pastoral psychology that devoted significant attention to counseling those who have been sexually abused, I doubted that we needed to give so much time to the subject. I was wrong – very wrong. I never realized how much I would be involved helping others deal with this life-altering trauma.

Over the past couple of decades, I have been called to help more people work through the effects of sexual abuse than I could have ever imagined. And sexual abuse is more common than most of us realize. This morning, in our local newspaper, another sad story about sexual abuse was printed beside the Penn State headline. The title read: “Principle accused of sexual abuse: Assistant Principle of Lancaster Mennonite High School put on leave.” One can only hope that these publicized stories will help other victims to have the courage to come forward and get the help they need.

While the media is largely focused on the removal of Coach Paterno, let us not forget the victims. Former coach Jerry Sandusky was charged with sexually assaulting many boys over a 15-year period. Their ages at the time of abuse ranged from seven to fourteen years old. If these allegations prove true, Penn State empowered a monstrous sexual predator with an authority and influence that he leveraged to prey on vulnerable children. It’s unimaginable that they only used verbal reprimands against such evil.

These victims, like most sexual abuse victims, suffered in silence and shame for years. The depth of betrayal involved in sexual abuse generates conflicted emotions that profoundly alter the lives of the abused. Imagine how enamored these young boys were with a chance to be near college football only to be trapped by a trusted public figure who lured them into his demented manipulation and abuse. Think about the fear and confusion they experienced. It was probably their first experience with sexuality. The physical, emotional and psychological trauma are unthinkable. 

Although victims respond differently, none of them walk away without significant and often lifelong damage. During my graduate class, my eyes were opened to a world of darkness that holds victims in silent pain. The more I learned about the issue, the more my heart grew heavy for the victims of this evil.

Most of my counseling of sexual abuse has focused on adults who had been assaulted as children. They come for help because they are struggling to live normal lives. They battle degrees of confusion (particularly about sexuality) and feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. Many seek help because of marital problems that are directly related to their history of abuse.

Since abuse usually involves manipulation and force, victims battle feelings of fear and anxiety. They long to gain full control of their lives and sometimes pursue security through excessive and controllable behaviors like exercise and dieting. They often work hard to conceal their pain because of embarrassment, shame or fear of their perpetrator. Yet they easily spiral into debilitating emotions. It’s not uncommon for them to feel an inability to function in normal life and an overall lack of motivation. Crippling emotions inexplicably grip their lives.

It’s also not unusual for survivors to experience significant loneliness, loss of appetite and inordinate desires to sleep their lives away. Mood swings plague those battling the grip of sexual abuse. Unusual gregariousness can give way to unexplainable periods of depression and crying. Other waves of emotion include self-hatred, panic attacks, irrational phobias and unexplainable anger and rage. They go through life feeling a lack of normality and a sense of being trapped.

Survivors of sexual abuse sometimes turn to other forms of abuse to escape their pain. Obsessive behaviors ranging from alcohol and drug abuse to sexual addiction and promiscuity become ways of “escape.” Sometimes victims even engage in self-mutilation and entertain suicidal thoughts.

Without help from caring friends, most victims don’t recognize how badly they’ve been affected. They tend to suppress the past to survive the present. It’s not unusual for sexual abuse victims to conceal their pain and keep others at a distance. The ability to be in trusting and transparent relationships feels risky to them. Yet they long for close relationships as much as they fear them.

As much as vulnerability feels risky to victims of abuse, it’s a necessary part of gaining freedom. They especially need to confront their abuser. Some form of confrontation is essential to healing. It helps facilitate a clear transfer of responsibility and blame to the perpetrator. This could be done through a written letter or a mediated personal confrontation. Safety is a primary consideration when facilitating confrontation.

The most formidable obstacle to this essential step is fear. Those who have been abused must confront their fears and surrender substituted forms of control that hold them hostage. This often means they must go back and work through the pain of the abuse. As they do this, they must reject all forms of self-blame and any blame that others try to project on them. They also must reject the powerful emotions of shame, guilt and fear that hold them in bondage.

A more subtle challenge for victims is their need to be honest about ways they’ve allowed resentment; anger and bitterness to become emotional means of retaliation. These emotions offer a deceptive sense of control and a feeling of getting revenge but, in the end, they only ruin those who cherish them. In an exceptionally sad way, they also extend the control and abuse of the injury inflicted by the abuser.

One victim of abuse expressed her pursuit of freedom as a refusal to tie her soul any longer to her abuser. As hard as it is, victims must courageously acknowledge and confront their pain. While it is true that the only thing we can change about our past is how we allow it to effect us in the future, we can find healing and freedom.

Yet rarely do victims of sexual abuse reach healing and freedom without the aid of wise counselors. Not every counselor understands the dynamics of abuse and how to help those who face it. If you have been abused only see a counselor who understands sexual abuse and has experience helping victims of it.

A hopeful part of recovery for the victims of Sandusky is the encouragement they can find in each other. They are not alone. I would recommend that they form a group under the guidance of a wise counselor as part of their path to healing.

Relating to God is another difficultly for victims of sexual abuse. “How can I trust God if He didn’t protect me when I was vulnerable?” they ask.  It’s hard to fully understand how God’s control relates to the evil actions of people. And these kinds of questions mixed with feelings of worthlessness and anger combine to obstruct faith in God. Such hesitations and struggles must not be treated lightly. Scripture reminds us to “be merciful to those who doubt” (Jude 22). Adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse need merciful and wise help in their struggle to trust in God and to rebuild their lives.

Steve Cornell

See also: