By FRANK BRUNI
Published: November 7, 2011
The longest, most exhaustively researched article I ever wrote for a newspaper or magazine was about a child molester who had sexually abused a little boy living down the street. The abuse went on for more than two years, beginning when the boy was 10.
This molester had a job. A house. A wife. Two kids of his own. And he gained access to his victim not through brute force but through patience, play and gifts: help with his homework, computer games, a new bike. To neighborhood observers, including the victim’s parents, the molester’s attentiveness passed for kindness, at least for a while. A molester’s behavior very often does.
The arrest on Saturday of a former Penn State University assistant football coach — who is accused of sexually abusing eight pre-adolescent, adolescent and teenage boys — brought this all back to me. I wonder if people who know the coach and saw him working with kids will comment on how genuinely nurturing he seemed and how this surely prevented or discouraged suspicions about him.
This is something that has come up repeatedly over decades — I wrote that article back in 1991, for The Detroit Free Press — but that remains tough to accept: the predator to watch out for is less likely to don a trench coat and lurk behind a bush than to wear a clerical collar and stand near the altar or to hold a stopwatch and walk the sidelines. And he (or, for that matter, she) works with children as a function of being drawn to them for reasons beyond their welfare.
The former Penn State assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky, 67, founded and ran a charity program for disadvantaged boys. That’s one of the ways he got to know and interact so extensively with kids, some of whom received special favors related to his college-football connections. His alleged abuse of them is said to have occurred over a 15-year period ending in 2009.
He maintains his innocence of the charges against him. That’s important to note, because sexual abuse of children is a crime so rightly enraging that the specter of it has prompted unfair rushes to judgment in the past.
But true or not, the accusations against Sandusky, spelled out in great detail in a 23-page grand jury report, bring to mind many proven cases in which a molester occupied a position of trust, identified and gravitated to children who were especially vulnerable, made them feel special and was by all outward appearances their champion, which many molesters indeed believe themselves to be.
In their own minds these molesters aren’t predators. They’re people whose affinity for children just happens to have a sexual element, the satisfaction of which they’ve convinced themselves isn’t such a big, harmful deal.
Parents face a tricky challenge. They need to be watchful but not paranoid, because most clergy members, scout leaders, camp counselors and coaches aren’t abusers in waiting and are improving children’s lives. They deserve the opportunity to.
But parents should also remain conscious of an additional lesson suggested by the Penn State story. Institutions do an awful job of policing themselves.
That has been true of the Boy Scouts, which has paid out tens of million of dollars in response to lawsuits by former scouts molested by adults who continued to work in the organization despite complaints or questions about their behavior.
That has been true of the Roman Catholic Church, whose diocesan heads and bishops repeatedly transferred abusive priests from one parish to another rather than report them to law enforcement authorities. This cover-up spanned decades and went all the way up the hierarchy of the church.
Many factors explain it, including a fear of scandal and desire to protect the church’s image. The Boy Scouts, too, didn’t want messiness exposed.
Was that a dynamic at Penn State as well? Two university officials have been indicted for not contacting the police after being alerted many years ago to the possibility that Sandusky was abusing boys from his charity on university premises.
And there are lingering questions about whether the university’s renowned head football coach, Joe Paterno, was irresponsible.
According to an account in the indictment that he hasn’t disputed, a graduate assistant in 2002 told him of inappropriate activity in a university shower between a boy and Sandusky, who had already retired from his longtime job as the coordinator of the football team’s defense. Coach Paterno relayed that to a university official, then apparently moved on. And Sandusky continued to interact with troubled boys.
Paterno absolutely should have followed up. Maybe he just couldn’t envision someone like Sandusky — a distinguished professional, a seeming do-gooder — as a molester. But it’s important that we all do.