Skip to main content

Sandusky sentence doesn't bring instant justice

By David Finkelhor, Special to CNN
October 10, 2012 -- Updated 1131 GMT (1931 HKT)
Former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was sentenced Tuesday to at least 30 years in prison.
Former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was sentenced Tuesday to at least 30 years in prison.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Former football coach Jerry Sandusky got long sentence for abusing boys
  • David Finkelhor says abuse leaves collateral damage that is difficult to address
  • He says spotting abuse must be key part of curricula in human service fields
  • Writer: Youth groups, schools, libraries should disseminate guidelines for prevention

Editor's note: David Finkelhor is director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center and professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire. He has been conducting research on victims of child sexual abuse since 1976.

(CNN) -- Former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky has been sentenced to a long prison term for sexually abusing boys, and for many people, this means that justice has been done. But in the complex crime of child sexual abuse, "doing justice" is rarely as simple as convicting and locking up the offender.

For most victims of sexual abuse, sending the offender to jail is not the most important thing. Their top priority is to be believed, to receive an apology or to restore their sense of trust. Sandusky's victims may have been accorded belief, but the apology does not seem forthcoming, at least from Sandusky. And the sense of trust often takes a long time to repair.

For the communities and families damaged by disclosures of sexual abuse, wounds continue to fester long after the cell door closes. There are almost always many who feel guilt or are blamed for having allowed the abuse or for mismanaging the situation and causing avoidable pain. The justice and mental health systems often don't do enough to help with all this collateral damage.

But "doing justice" also means preventing future harm. Many victims ultimately come forward to prevent other children (sometimes their own siblings) from becoming victims.

Sandusky gets no less than 30 years jail
Prosecutor: Sandusky was delusional
Allred: Sandusky statements 'desperate'

Law enforcement believes that putting abusers away for a long time keeps the community safe. But while convictions and incarcerations do prevent some future offenses, it is naive to think that we can prosecute our way to child safety in this crime. For example, a third of all child sex offenses occur at the hands of other youth (PDF), and these crimes are not likely to be prevented by greater incarceration, in part because few of these juveniles have records that would have allowed authorities to intervene.

The key to real prevention is awareness and education. There is no question that the Sandusky case has advanced these goals. Certainly, campuses all over the country are reviewing their standards and educating their staff members to make sure it "won't happen here."

But the Sandusky case also reminds us of how much more we potentially have to do. Nearly 50 years after mandatory reporting laws came into effect and 10 years after the priest abuse scandal, highly educated and well-meaning professionals still fail to do the right thing.

Here are some changes that should be on our prevention agenda:

• Make abuse prevention, detection and management prominent in the curricula of graduate education in all human service fields.

• Create off-the-shelf abuse prevention guidelines and educational materials that small and large youth-serving organizations can adopt and disseminate without a lot of expense.

• Provide evidence-based prevention education for children and youth at all levels of the educational system.

• Through schools, libraries and pediatricians, give parents the skills and vocabularies for talking about abuse with their kids.

Finally, we need to see justice in these cases as a process, not just an outcome. Convictions may be obtained, but victims and families are left battered. Studies suggest that most cases with child victims take far too long to resolve in the legal system. Many victims and families complain that they aren't kept up to date on what is happening in the case and why. Victims' identities are often not protected. Investigative interviews and procedures can be intimidating and exhausting. Helpful mental health and support services are not readily available.

At the same time, much is being done to make the process more victim-friendly. Child advocacy centers are being established all across the country. Law enforcement is being trained in child development skills and sensitive interviewing practices. Judges are being admonished to speed cases along.

But we still have a long way to go before we can close cases like that of Jerry Sandusky with confidence that "justice was done."

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Finkelhor.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2233 GMT (0633 HKT)
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
ADVERTISEMENT