Why did suspicions about Jerry Sandusky yield no action for so long?

McClatchy NewspapersJune 15, 2012 

— The boy, only 11 in 1998, said he felt uncomfortable when Jerry Sandusky, then a powerful assistant football coach from Penn State, first wrestled with him on the carpet and then invited him to undress so the two of them could take a shower together.

As Sandusky went on trial this week in Bellefonte, Pa., to face child sex-abuse criminal charges, the boy – now a 25-year-old from Colorado known as alleged victim No. 6 – told jurors that he “went with it, because it was Jerry Sandusky, and I didn’t want to make him mad.” One of eight boys to testify against Sandusky, he first told his story to police 14 years ago, after his mother told authorities what her son had said about the shower.

As the trial resumes Monday and the prosecution prepares to wrap up its case, one key question lingers: How could so many people ignore so many allegations of abuse for so long?

As the testimony has made clear so far, lots of people in positions of authority knew or clearly were in a position to know, including the coach’s wife and colleagues, along with prosecutors and police. But nothing happened to Sandusky until a 52-count indictment came down in November.

“There’s a simple answer: He was a winning coach,” said Lois Baron, a retired education professor at Concordia University in Montreal who wrote a book in 2008 that examined abuse issues and the psychology of young athletes.

Experts said it was an all-too common phenomenon: Friends and co-workers are reluctant to report suspicions of sex abuse if they involve a respected community leader. That was certainly the case with the award-winning Sandusky, 68, who ran a charity for troubled kids and invited them to his home, where they could play pool and shuffleboard and spend the night.

And they said the problem was exacerbated when you mixed in sports figures and the all-American drive to win.

“These people give us a tremendous sense of well-being and possibility, and we don’t want to admit to ourselves that they’re flawed,” said Margaret Heffernan, a former chief executive from New Hampshire who wrote a book last year called “Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril.”

As London prepares to host the Olympics next month, Heffernan said, she’s been having similar arguments with people “who insist that these games are pure.” But she said many people needed to think that way.

“A great deal of our sense of the logic and justice of the world hinges on heroes, role models, people we admire and respect,” she said. “This is particularly true of winners. We need the good guys to win and the bad guys to lose, because that proves that the world is rational and fair.”

At Penn State, people “were motivated not to see what they didn’t want to see,” said Ann Tenbrunsel, an author and professor of business ethics in the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business. She called it “motivated blindness” and said “this can happen anywhere,” citing the example of an outside auditor who might not expose accounting errors because of fears over losing the account.

Child sex-abuse expert Kenneth Lanning of Virginia, who worked for the FBI for 30 years, said the Penn State case “is actually extremely common” and that such cases force the public to confront the possible “nice-guy molester” who isn’t necessarily part of their framework.

“The reason these guys get away with this so long is hardly anybody understands this and has the slightest idea of what they’re looking for, because these cases do not fit the popular stereotype that Americans want to believe and which is perpetuated by the media,” he said. “And when I tell you hardly anyone understands these cases, that includes police and prosecutors.”

Lanning said most people understood sex abuse that involved family members or strangers who kidnapped kids and abused them but that other cases puzzled them.

“I call it the forgotten molester,” he said. “The forgotten guy is this nice guy, the acquaintance molester, this pillar-of-the-community guy, who’s the coach, the next-door neighbor, the baby sitter, the teacher.” In Sandusky’s case, he said, jurors must sort out “whether this guy is a nice wonderful guy who founded this charity and cared about kids or if is he some sick, disgusting, perverted child molester.” And he said: “They’re not mutually exclusive concepts.”

At Penn State, there were plenty of warning signs.

One accuser testified that Sandusky’s wife, Dottie, and adopted son Matt Sandusky were around him when Sandusky was abusing him. Once, he testified, Dottie Sandusky interrupted her husband trying to force him to perform oral sex in a hotel bathroom during Penn State’s Alamo Bowl trip in 1999.

Former assistant coach Mike McQueary testified that he’d walked into a Penn State shower and seen Sandusky naked with a young boy in a position that was “extremely sexual” and that he heard “skin on skin slapping sounds.” He said he’d reported the incident to former head coach Joe Paterno.

Former police Officer Ronald Scheffler testified that he’d recorded Sandusky in a sting that was set up after the mother of alleged victim No. 6 confronted the coach over the shower her son said the coach had taken with him. In the recording, the coach tells the woman: “I wish I could ask for forgiveness. I know I will never get it from you. I wish I were dead.”

One boy testified that Sandusky had forced him to have anal sex and to perform oral sex and that he spent at least 100 nights at the coach’s house.

Tom Kline, an attorney for one of the accusers, said Sandusky’s wife “was always there.”

“The man had more sleepover guests than the Comfort Inn. He was running the kiddie special,” Kline said. “You have to ask the rhetorical question: How many nights do you have to have little boys stay in your house before you ask, ‘Jerry, what’s going on?’ ”

On Thursday, one of the accusers described getting into trouble in school and then meeting Sandusky through the coach’scharity. As a fifth-grader, he said, it was thrilling to watch Penn State games on the sidelines at Sandusky’s side, and he once spent the night in a New York hotel with the coach when Sandusky went there to deliver a motivational speech.

The boy said he spent at least 50 nights with Sandusky and that the coach would make him laugh, rub his shoulder, blow on his stomach, touch the inside of his leg and “at times, he would touch my penis.” He said he loved Sandusky because he made him feel special, like family.

The gray-haired Sandusky, wearing khakis, a tie and a brown sports jacket, held his chin in his hand as he listened. When the boy concluded, Sandusky left the courtroom, chatting with his attorneys, smiling broadly and easily.

Outside, as he swept the sidewalk on West High Street, just across the street from the old courthouse, where a horde of television trucks had lined up, 60-year-old Joe Mood marveled at how much denial people will swallow to protect their sports heroes.

But he laughed and recalled his own reaction when one of the state’s other sport stars, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, was under investigation, accused of raping a 20-year-old college student. Roethlisberger was never charged with a crime but the National Football League suspended him in 2010.

“I’m a big Steelers fan, and we all wanted to believe that he wasn’t guilty, but somewhere in the back of our minds we tucked it,” said Mood, who volunteers as a janitor at the Faith Centre in Bellefonte, a small picturesque town where you can park 10 hours for 50 cents. “This is Penn State country. I bet nine of 10 people you talk to you would be Penn State fans, some rabid fans, and they were probably hoping to tuck this one as far back as possible.”

Chip Minemyer and Mike Dawson of the Centre Daily Times and Tish Wells in Washington contributed to this article.

Email: rhotakainen@mcclatchydc.com

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