Most of us would rather take a bullet than stand by and watch a child be hurt. It’s difficult for us to fathom a mindset that places a higher priority on the sheltering of a suspected pedophile than on the harm done to alleged victims.
But, as shocking as the Penn State University sex abuse scandal is, the failure of seemingly good people to protect the most innocent and vulnerable among us is all too familiar.
How many times must we witness the eyes-averted, excuse-laden rationalizations of those who could have acted, but did nothing, or did too little too late? It is the very banality of those who live in such denial that sexual abuse survivors find so devastating. The abuse itself is horrific; the cover up can magnify the damage exponentially.
To recap, a former Penn State assistant football coach has been charged with 40 counts of sexual abuse to children. Evidence has emerged that some school officials knew of the alleged abuse, but failed to intervene. No calls to law enforcement authorities were made, according to the grand jury report, despite a particularly appalling eyewitness account of a boy being molested in a locker room shower.
The scandal has engulfed legendary coach Joe Paterno, who was fired amid accusations that he knew of the alleged abuse, yet did nothing more than report it to a university administrator. Penn State’s president was also dismissed, and two other university officials have been charged with perjury.
As the Penn State story unfolded over the past few weeks, my thoughts turned to Newport Beach resident Joelle Casteix, a well-known advocate for victims of childhood molestation.
I first met Joelle about a year-and-a-half ago, when I was working on a magazine profile of her. The more I learned about her campaign to shed light into the dark corners of pedophilia and hold perpetrators and their enablers accountable, the more I came to admire her.
Joelle’s activism was born out of anguish. She was an emotionally fragile girl from a troubled home when she attended Mater Dei, the Catholic high school in Santa Ana, in the 1980s. A popular teacher preyed on her and pressured her into having sex, she says, and when she asked a school administrator for help, she was rebuffed and told to keep quiet about the abuse.
The teacher admitted to having sex with Joelle and another student, but no police were involved, no charges were filed, and the teacher left Mater Dei much later, only after his history became more widely known. He now teaches in another state.
Joelle was tormented by her past for years, even after graduating from UC Santa Barbara and establishing a career in public relations and media consulting. It wasn’t until 2005, when Joelle and 90 other alleged victims of sexual abuse shared in a $100-million settlement of a civil case against the Diocese of Orange, that she began to take her life back.
Since then, Joelle has devoted her time to helping others, and holds leadership roles with several advocacy organizations. Her work often comes at great personal cost. She is frequently castigated for her efforts to spread awareness about child sexual abuse, hold perpetrators and those who shield them accountable, strengthen laws against sexual predators, and give solace to victims.
After all she’s been through, Joelle — now happily married and the mother of a beautiful 5-year-old son — has certainly earned the right to retire from her fight against the wall of denial that intimidates victims into silence.
When we spoke last week, she admitted to some weariness. “It’s taxing, and I’m really tired,” she said.
“I get people who are highly educated, who have children, who know the facts, and still have blinders on,” she said. “We spend a lot of time as a culture minding our own business.”
Yet, despite all the ugliness she has witnessed, Joelle believes the Penn State scandal offers “a glimmer of hope.”
The story is terrible, she said, but unlike her decade-plus battle for more openness and accountability regarding sexual abuse in Catholic institutions, she is encouraged that the Penn State case is now unfolding relatively quickly.
The immense notoriety of the case offers an opportunity to educate the public, she believes. Those who initially protested Paterno’s firing may not have known the full extent of the allegations, or understood the true horror of child molestation. They haven’t experienced first-hand the trauma that plagues victims well into adulthood, or realize that an essential piece to their healing is the simple acknowledgment by others that the abuse occurred.
“I think a lot of good can come from this,” she said. “Penn State has opened up a real conversation. This is a great teachable moment.”
The lesson I have learned is quite clear: Anyone who knows or suspects that a child is being sexually abused and doesn’t immediately report it to police is complicit in the crime. There can be no gray area, no room for cover in this.
The wide-eyed innocence of youth, once lost, is lost forever. We are all to blame if we merely stand by and observe its destruction, hoping that someone else will have the courage to speak up.
PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.