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The Sandusky Sentence: Is this Justice?

By October 11, 2012 No Comments

Eleven months ago, I blogged about the arrest of Jerry Sandusky, the Penn State Football coach who then had been accused, now convicted, of sexually abusing a slate of vulnerable boys over a period of decades—45 counts of sexual abuse to be precise. I suggested that this would become a millstone around the neck of the iconic Joe Paterno. Today, Paterno is deceased, his statue torn down from Beaver Stadium, his winningest record expunged. The Penn State Football machine has been heavily fined and banned from post-season play for four years. Multiple Penn State officials await trial for perjury. Civil lawsuits against the university will come next. And now Jerry Sandusky has been sentenced to thirty-to-sixty years in prison—what is, in effect, a life sentence.

As I’ve watched the news of the last few days, I’ve asked myself again and again: But is this justice? Is this justice for the victims—those will bear the scars of abuse in their bodies and souls for the rest of their lives? Is this enough?

Marie Fortune, founder and director of Faith Trust Institute, the leading national, multifaith organization working to end sexual abuse and domestic violence, rightly asserts that there is no healing for victims of sexual abuse without justice and justice-making. Justice-making is the responsibility of an entire community, even multiple communities. It entails the following:

1)   Truth-telling:  survivors get a chance to speak the truth about what the they have experienced. They (not the abuser) own their story.

2)   Acknowledgement:  the survivors must be heard and understood by people who matter in the situation. This includes the expression of moral outrage by those listening.

3)   Compassion:  those in the community “suffer with” those who have been abused. They bear the burden  for the bystander to be able to listen and be present to the suffering without ‘fixing’ or turning away.

4)   Protecting the vulnerable:  the community must take decisive action to protect anyone else who might be vulnerable to harm from this or other perpetrators.

5)   Accountability:  the community must hold the perpetrator accountable.  In the best of circumstances, the perpetrator would acknowledge and confess his or her crimes and accept consequences of those crimes. This would extend to all those who silently participated in the abuse by turning a blind eye.

6)   Restitution: the survivor ought to receive material compensation for the losses (emotional, physical, financial) he or she has incurred. Ideally this ought to be provided by the perpetrator, all those involved in the abuse, and any larger institution implicated in the abuse.

7)   Vindication: this is not revenge, according to Fortune, but rather the process of being set free. While the impact of the trauma remains, it is no longer debilitating. Survivors get to live their lives.[1]

In essence—these are seven dimensions of confession and repentance enacted by persons and communities before God and one another, especially those who are most vulnerable. They are the faithful response to heeding Jesus’ warnings in Matthew 18:5-6: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.”

So have the survivors of Sandusky’s, Paterno’s, and Penn State’s abuse been given justice? In some sense, only they can say. In another sense, it is hard to see how all of these seven dimensions have been carried out to the fullest. As perhaps the most egregious example, Sandusky (like the vast majority of perpetrators) continues to deny all instances of abuse and blame his victims—conveniently and falsely placing himself in the role of victim.

Perhaps like always, justice-making is an eschatological reality; hopefully experienced in part but only then, when face-to-face with God, experienced in full. My prayer for the survivors is that this eschatological reality breaks into their lives again and again in the here and now, until one day when it is manifested in fullness.


[1] Marie M. Fortune, “No Healing Without Justice,”, 2004.

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