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Making Sense of Publicizing Sex Abuse History

Mar 10, 2014

Credit Penn State

Former assistant Penn State football coach Mike McQueary is a hero to some for revealing that he saw former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky sexually assault a young boy in a Penn State locker room in 2001.

That got Sandusky sent to prison... but it also led to the resignation of Penn State's beloved head football coach Joe Paterno.

McQueary had said he told Paterno about the abuse but nothing was ever done about it.

For that, some say McQueary is a liar and the man who brought down the Penn State football program.

But senior writer for "ESPN the Magazine" Don Van Natta is now calling McQueary something else -- sexual abuse victim.

Van Natta writes that McQueary revealed his own history of abuse to his team at the height of the scandal.

McQueary declined to comment for Van Natta's article and has not made any public statements about his sexual abuse history.

So, was it right for "ESPN: The Magazine" to make that information public?

"That's too simple of a question to answer right now, but we do have a tradition in journalism that goes back to the 1970s of affording sexual abuse victims anonymity," said Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute's "Sense-Making Project."

"That tradition has its roots in two facts. One is that sexual abuse comes with a great amount of stigma and shame, and to shield the victims from that, the media generally afford them anonymity. But the second reason has a greater public good and that is that sexual abuse is the most under-reported to police and in order to change that many professionals believe that if the media continue to afford victims anonymity, that they will be more likely to report their crimes."

But, in McQueary's case, there's no crime and that's one of the reason's "ESPN: The Magazine" said it felt comfortable revealing reports of McQueary's sexual abuse history.

McBride, who has done ethics work for ESPN in the past, contacted ESPN for more explanation.

"They said they considered the gravity of the case and they felt like this fact -- that McQueary had told his players that he, himself, was a victim of sexual abuse -- was intensely relevant to the story," McBride said.

The "ESPN: The Magazine" story about McQueary raises a lot of questions about his personal character -- enough so to make some wonder if the article is meant to undermine his credibility.

"It is a reasonable conclusion to make," said McBride. "The story paints McQueary as someone who is inherently not trusted by some his peers, it talks about a gambling problem and this is one of the problems with stories about sexual abuse survivors. That's a common way for society to respond to sexual abuse survivor -- to say we don't believe this actually happened to you."