As a survivor of sexual assault and abuse, I watched the media coverage of the allegations against Sandusky and administrators at Penn State unfold with fascination and disgust. There were lots of stories published about lots of different people, and through it all, one person stood out to me: John Surma. While I am sure John Surma did not plan to get written into this terrible chapter in history, he handled it like a true leader and a hero. The Vice Chairman of the Board of Trustees at Penn State, John Surma, was a a voice of reason and responsibility and standing up for what was right and just.
Specifically, there were three things that stood out about his approach:
- He was not a bystander. So many people literally and figuratively walked by a child being raped by an adult. John did not. Passive bystanders compound the trauma endured by victims of sexual assault – it’s a secondary rape, and one that makes it that much harder to heal.
- He was accountable for his actions and the actions of people who reported to him, even when it was hard and public opinion did not support him. He fired the beloved Joe Paterno, and insisted that senior administrators with knowledge – or that should have had knowledge – of the abuse resign. And once this was completed, he offered his own resignation so that the community, the survivors, and Penn State could move on. That takes some major courage.
- He didn’t act like it was OK. He didn’t minimize what happened. He didn’t feel sorrier for football players or coaches or university administrators than he did for the survivors themselves. He approached the situation the way that he would have approached it had the victim been his own child.
I know these are not situations in which one expects to be thanked. Which is why I want John to know how grateful I am to him. Too many times, it is easier to look away than to get involved. Too many times, individuals and systems fail victims of sexual abuse. It’s hard to stand up to insanity and evil, and he did it.
John, I want you to know it matters. It matters to me. Thank you.