Jerry Sandusky Scandal

Light shines on tragedy: Candlelight vigil honors victims of sexual abuse

UNIVERSITY PARK — Some sat in glass jars, others in plastic cups.

There were candlesticks, tea candles, fat candles, many with paper plates and cups to catch wax. A few were battery-powered.

Held aloft by the thousands, they formed a sea of flickering flames stretching to the back of the Old Main lawn.

And in a moment of silence broken only by 10 bells chiming the hour, the lights spoke straight from the hearts of Penn State students trying to recover from a turbulent week.

“Really, the only thing you can do is band together and be one again, and get it back on the road,” said Eric Bella, a junior from Wilkes-Barre.

Friday night, he joined a sprawling crowd gathered for a candlelight vigil in front of Old Main to show their support for the victims at the center of the scandal rocking Penn State and the local community, and to counter the images of rioting classmates beamed to the world.

Former football coach Jerry Sandusky has been charged with sexually-abusing eight boys he met through The Second Mile, the charity he founded in 1977. The ongoing fallout, sparked by a possible university cover-up of one assault, cost head coach Joe Paterno and Penn State President Graham Spanier their jobs.

In the wake of Paterno’s dismissal Wednesday, angry mobs took to the streets, damaging public property and overturning a media van.

Two days later, candle-holding students said the vigil represented the true spirit of the university.

“I’m just here because this is what I feel Penn State is really about,” said senior Sasha McCarthy, of Nairobi, Kenya. “It’s about love and caring for others.”

More than 10,000 people responded to a Facebook event site, and judging from the mass of people, it appeared the publicity worked. Co-organizer Kyle Harris, a senior from Northborough, Mass., said the goal of the vigil was to re-focus attention on the victims and to emphasize the good qualities of Penn State students.

“We’re more than a football program,” he said. “We’re not the representation of the actions of a few.”

Added his organizing partner, Jessica Sever, a senior from Garnet Valley: “We’re not going to let a few individuals define who we are. This is who we are.”

Roommates and best friends Meghan O’Neil and Chey Stefan arrived about two hours early, when only a few dozen people milled about, to get choice spots. Like many, they wore Penn State clothing. Both said they loved Penn State and wanted the vigil to demonstrate that the boys’ plights upset students as much as the steady stream of bad news.

“This is our way of saying we’re not forgetting them, and that we care for them,” O’Neil, a junior from Cape Cod, Mass., said.

Stefan, a junior from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said the vigil had nothing to do with Paterno’s firing or the university’s administration.

“This isn’t about football,” she said. “This is about being together and supporting each other.”

During the vigil, in between tunes sung by a choir and selections played by the Blue Band spread across Old Main’s front, the crowd heard from several speakers, including a personal tale of childhood sexual abuse suffered by an anonymous woman in the crowd. Sever read her account.

LaVar Arrington, an All- American linebacker at Penn State and then an All- Pro selection in the NFL, urged the crowd to bond as proud Penn Staters, vow to fight child abuse and care for survivors.

“So for something this evil to come into the midst of our family, understand: This is a call to duty,” he said. “This is a challenge. The worst crime we could commit is to leave here and forget what happened.”

At 10 p.m., the candles lifted for the moment of silence. They rose again while the choir sung John Lennon’s “Imagine,” then again for the Penn State alma mater, as students threw arms around each other and swayed.

And then, as thousands of voices sang Coldplay’s “Fix You,” the glowing points lit up the darkness.

“Lights will guide you home. And ignite your bones,” rang out in the night. “And I will try to fix you.”

Chris Rosenblum can be reached at 231-4620.