Commentary: Penn State scandal reveals methods of predators

The Kansas City StarNovember 11, 2011 

This column usually is devoted to the weekend’s big game or news in college sports. Coaches, players or administrators typically have voice here as a football Saturday approaches.

But this isn’t a typical football eve. Because we continue to grasp what feels like the biggest scandal in college sports history, a story so vile it’s almost beyond belief, only voices like Jeanetta Issa’s should matter.

She speaks for the victims of abuse in her role as CEO and president of the Child Abuse Prevention Association. Among its many missions, the Independence-based group provides counseling for children who have been sexually abused.

Issa and her staff have been following the story of former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky. The sordid details revealed in the grand-jury report that have rocked a proud university and shaken the sport to its core are all too familiar inside the walls of her association.

We started by discussing perhaps the most disturbing and revolting news. In 2002, a graduate assistant coach witnessed a boy, believed to be about 10, being subjected to anal intercourse by Sandusky in the Penn State football building showers. The coach told his father that night. They went to Joe Paterno the next day, and they all told the story to athletic director Tim Curley and then-school vice president Gary Schultz.

Nothing came of the action, and, according to grand-jury testimony, the pattern of abuse continued until 2009.

“The big issue to me was the discounting,” Issa said. “It’s difficult to get a child to say anything has happened. Very seldom do you get that. It comes through behavioral or physical indicators. But somebody saw this.

“Everybody at every level discounted it. Nobody took it seriously.”

This is the critical issue in State College, why Paterno and university president Graham Spanier were relieved Wednesday by the school’s board of trustees and why the federal government has launched an investigation.

Most states, including Missouri, Kansas and Pennsylvania, have mandated reporting, where certain professionals are required by law to report child maltreatment. Doctors, health-care workers, law-enforcement officers, child-care providers, teachers and coaches are part of this group. In Missouri, clergy members also are mandated reporters. States set up hotlines for suspected abuse.

According to testimony, Sandusky abused children for at least 15 years. How does this happen? Pedophiles are masters of deception.

“We think they should be big, old ugly people in a trench coach with warts on their noses and humped back,” Issa said. “They’re not. It’s your nicest, kindest, often dashing looking person. They’re gregarious. They know how to work people. They can sense immediately who may be more vulnerable than others.”

It’s not just the children charmed. Parents can be flattered by adults who have taken a special interest in their child.

“They groom the kids and the parents,” Issa said. “ ‘Wow, the kid gets to hang out with a coach who’s going to take him to the game, take him on a trip?’ The kid gets favored treatment. Parents don’t always recognize that this can be a problem. People want to believe the best in other people.”

The description fits the predatory practices alleged in the grand-jury report. Sandusky founded The Second Mile, a nonprofit center to help at-risk youths. Sandusky now had access to kids, some already with low self-esteem, and he is accused of assaulting at least eight of them.

“With boys, there are many psychological reasons why they don’t report, and first of all it’s because they’re embarrassed,” Issa said. “Maybe they don’t want people relating to them as being gay, if that’s an issue to them.”

And coaches tend to hold a special place for youth. One accuser, now 27, testified that he traveled to functions with Sandusky and was listed as a member of the Sandusky family party at bowl games.

“They’re made to feel special, they’ve been given presents or benefits,” Issa said. “They’re being groomed.

“If they try to get away from this behavior, they’re stuck. There could be coercion or threats. They’ll say they’ll kill your dog or your family.”

Or in this case, punish by sending you home from the bowl game, as Sandusky threatened to do.

“The kids have no clue,” Issa said. “They believe it. They’re stuck in this behavior where they’re too embarrassed or scared to death to tell. If nobody intervenes, it continues until the perpetrator decides they want to stop or go on to somebody else.”

As Sandusky’s alleged behavior showed, there’s always somebody else. Issa’s association and other professional organizations say education is a critical step in prevention. Issa conducts training at churches, clubs and youth groups and tells them predators seek the least amount of security. Don’t put kids in rooms without windows. Always keep doors open. But the first line of defense starts at home with parenting. Adults who want to be alone with your children or break parents’ rules for their child’s behavior are warning signs.

Whatever preventive measures were in place at Sandusky’s youth center and Penn State failed miserably. It took a victim asking his mother about a database for “sexual weirdos” to begin the three-year investigation.

The website stopitnow.com reports that one in three girls and one in seven boys will be sexually molested before they’re 18. In about 90 percent of the cases, the victim knows the abuser, and about half of that total is family or extended family member.

On Thursday, after chatting with Issa and touring the organization’s office on 23rd Street, she called me and left a message. The association accepts donations through its website, www.childabuseprevention .org, and a $100 gift had just arrived.

From a Penn State graduate.

To read more, visit www.kansascity.com.

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