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Joe Paterno statue debate misses the point

Eric Adelson
Yahoo Sports

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A sign imploring Penn State officials to take down the statue of Joe Paterno flies over the university. (AP)

Enough already about the statue.

The monument to former coach Joe Paterno wouldn't have protected children if it had been left standing, and it won't protect children if it's now shattered into a million pieces after Penn State officials decided to remove it Sunday morning from outside Beaver Stadium. So much has been written about what should become of this false idol, and too little has been written about how to make sure we've learned something from Paterno's inexcusable behavior. Those who would somehow feel better now if the statue is removed aren't thinking straight.

How many of us have debated the statue and how many of us have bothered to do an internet search for how to tell the warning signs of child sexual abuse? Of course we tell ourselves we'd report a coach raping a little boy in the shower, but the signals are almost never that clear. They are almost always missed – almost always ignored.

(A few of the warning signs, from StopItNow.org, are listed at the bottom of this story.)

In a column this week in the Norfolk Daily News, columnist Les Mann writes about "rumors" involving a high school basketball coach in the 1980s. Read on about when a reporter confronted Mann about it:

(Note: Mann is the "I" in the following exchange)

Were there any reports of him sexually abusing his players while he was there?" the reporter asked.

"Um, nothing official," [Mann] replied, "Why, is he in trouble … there (I almost said 'again']?"

"So there were no stories in your paper about why he left …"

I shared with him the "rumors," which we both knew were now more fact than that. We both also knew if they had been reported it might have saved another child from harm.

But it was a different time and the excuses for looking the other way were legion. The school board knew. The superintendent knew. The county attorney had to know because he or his partner was the school attorney, too. The whole town knew. Certainly the newspaper and sports editors knew.

But we all sorta did a JoePa.

It was a different time? A time when looking the other way is appropriate? A time when a child in danger couldn't be saved? Is it really "a different time" now when this stuff is being written?

The time between "then" and now included the long-running NBC show "To Catch A Predator." Millions watched. Everyone knows the name of the host. Nothing has changed.

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The famed statue of Joe Paterno was taken down from outside the Penn State football stadium. (AP)

The time between "then" and now included horrible crimes committed by members of the Catholic church. Everyone knows about that. Nothing has changed.

The time between "then" and now included the revealing of heinous crimes by a junior hockey coach in Canada and the admirable public fight by one of his victims, former NHL player Sheldon Kennedy. Everyone in hockey knows Kennedy and the name of his molester, Graham James. Nothing has changed.

Nothing has changed: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in four women and one in six men are sexually abused before age 18. That puts multiple victims in every single classroom in America. Multiple victims on every school bus. Multiple victims in the neighborhood where you live.

Nothing has changed because of the sheer terror abused children face is enough to keep them quiet. In a must-read report by USA Today, the psychologist for a victim of Jerry Sandusky's abuses said of his patient: "From the first time we met, he was fearful that he would be killed. He believed that Jerry Sandusky could have him killed." This young man was stunningly brave in overcoming that fear, but any punishment of the Paterno legacy or Penn State won't make the next victims less scared. The signs abused children give are almost indecipherable, and gossipy adults who think kids have wild imaginations are not going to get us any closer to eradicating this problem.

Young victims will lie to their parents, over and over again, because they fear the repercussions. The thought of being molested again is less horrible than the thought of being punished, ridiculed, ostracized or physically harmed. Private shame is less painful than public shame, especially for a child. USA Today reports Victim 1 "couldn't begin to describe to his mother why he no longer wanted anything more to do with Jerry Sandusky, who had eagerly sought to become a part of the child's life, disguised as a generous father figure."

Consider Olympian Kellie Wells, who has a strong chance to win a gold medal for Team USA in London. She's brave enough to perform in front of the entire world, but for years she was not brave enough to blow the whistle on her abusive stepfather. He touched her "more times than I can count," she told Yahoo! Sports last year. And when she told her mother, Wells was greeted only with anger.

Wells is a survivor, a hero. She's made it. But still she's wounded, probably for life, because nobody saw the signs and she didn't feel comfortable coming forward. "I have zero trust in people," she said. "The people who were supposed to keep me safe did this to me. If harm came from them, who will look out for me?"

So now that the statue of Paterno is gone, the debate seemingly over, what now? Who will look out for the next potential victims? Do you know the signs and what to do if you see them?

Or are you going to be the next statue?

WARNING SIGNS IN CHILDREN OF POSSIBLE SEXUAL ABUSE

• Has nightmares or other sleep problems without an explanation
• Seems distracted or distant at odd times
• Has a sudden change in eating habits
• Refuses to eat
• Loses or drastically increases appetite
• Has trouble swallowing.
• Sudden mood swings: rage, fear, insecurity or withdrawal
• Leaves “clues” that seem likely to provoke a discussion about sexual issues
• Writes, draws, plays or dreams of sexual or frightening images
• Develops new or unusual fear of certain people or places
• Refuses to talk about a secret shared with an adult or older child
• Talks about a new older friend
• Suddenly has money, toys or other gifts without reason
• Thinks of self or body as repulsive, dirty or bad
• Exhibits adult-like sexual behaviors, language and knowledge

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