The head-in-the-sand approach to child abuse

By now, we’re all achingly familiar with the Penn State sex-abuse scandal, its horrific allegations of child rape, and how all of it toppled a legendary coach.

For a moment, though, let’s forget about Joe Paterno, loathesome as he might be. Instead, focus on Gerald “Jerry” Sandusky, the alleged rapist. (He has denied the allegations.)

According to his indictment, he victimized young boys to varying degrees, was caught in the act — more than once, it turns out — and skated. Since the indictment became public, more people have come forward, alleging Sandusky abused them.

The ugly, unvarnished details from the indictment are these:

In 2002, graduate assistant Mike Mc- Queary allegedly saw Sandusky pinning a naked boy against the wall of the showers at Penn State, anally raping him. McQueary informed his father, who told him to report it to Paterno, which he did. Paterno then informed Gary Schultz, senior vice president for finance and business at Penn, and athletic director Tim Curley.

Schultz told the grand jury he “had the impression Sandusky might have inappropriately grabbed the boy’s genitals and agreed that such was inappropriate sexual conduct between a man and a boy.” Still, Schultz maintained that he and Curley “had no indication that a crime had occurred” and the allegations “were not that serious.” He also denied that McQueary and Paterno had reported rape to him.

Curley said the same — that the alleged conduct was reported as “horsing around.”

No report was made to police — even though Schultz oversaw the university’s force — or child services. There was no attempt to identify the child; Schultz didn’t seek specifics, and was “surprised” there was a lengthy police report from a 1998 incident as well, the indictment says. The incident “was never reported to any officials, in contravention of Pennsylvania law.”

University officials took Sandusky’s keys to the building where the alleged assault occurred and also told him he could no longer bring boys from his Second Mile charity to campus. But Sandusky himself was not barred from Penn State buildings, and the ban on children was not enforceable.

This did nothing to help the alleged victim and practically everything to ensure the alleged predation could continue.

Schultz and Curley were deemed “not credible,” and were alleged to have made materially false statements as to what Mc- Queary told them had happened.

According to the indictment, the 2002 shower incident was not the first: In 2000, a contract janitorial worker reportedly saw Sandusky pinning a child against the wall in the showers, and fellating him. This so severely affected the janitor that his co-workers thought he was going to have a heart attack. His supervisor told the grand jury the janitor said he had “fought in the (Korean) war … seen people with their guts blowed out, arms dismembered … I just witnessed something in there I’ll never forget.”

Again, no report was made. The janitor now lives in a nursing home, and his dementia makes him incompetent to testify.

The indictment reads like a mini-textbook of child molesters’ modus operandi, with classic grooming steps, such as gifts, trips, and attention. It shows a man with an ample pool of victims from which to select, thanks to a charity he himself established. The reputation he created for himself allowed him to hide; the position he created allowed him to prey. The boys were helpless: too small to defend themselves, for the most part, too scared to tell.

It’s textbook in another way, too. If correct, the document shows a level of abuse made possible by non-offenders’ minimization of what is alleged to have happened, which in turn results from an unwillingness to believe.

Paterno may have fulfilled his legal obligation by reporting the alleged abuse to his superiors — that doesn’t let him off the hook morally. McQueary and the janitor at least tried to do the right thing, and it’s too easy to judge them for what we think we “would have done” in the same situation.

Still, one wonders why they stopped at simply passing the information along to their superiors. And why some Penn State students rioted because Paterno was fired, rather than because he may have helped cover up the crime.

It never fails to amaze me — and disturb me — that so many people are far more outraged that these types of crimes come to light than that the crimes happen. At this very moment, you may be repulsed by my inclusion of details from the indictment. But child sex abuse is an ugly crime; ignoring the details won’t diminish the offense, and if nothing else, I’ve been nowhere near as graphic as the indictment would permit.

We don’t believe, because we don’t want to. Sex crimes happen in other places, to other people — and most important, they are committed by other people, not those whom we know. When that troubling little thing called reality turns our comfortable perceptions on their head, our default options tend to range from denial, to blaming the victim, to shooting the messenger. Heaven forbid we hold the sex offender responsible!

It’s hard to acknowledge the “monster” might be one of us, and it’s even harder to admit that most monsters are not as obvious as we like to think they are. According to psychologist Anna Salter, we continue believing, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that we can “spot” an offender on sight; we believe — despite proof that the vast majority of child victims are harmed by people they know and trust — that child predators are those creepy weirdoes who hang out in vans by park and playground. As for grasping the idea that this wrongheaded belief could actually assist predators? That’s too much to fathom.

According to human nature, a sexual predator can never be your best friend, the woman next to you in the choir, a public official — or an assistant coach who set up a program to help at-risk kids.

Except when it is.

For an excellent resource on the pathology of sexual predators — and how decent folk tend to react to same — read “Predators: Pedophiles, Rapists and Other Sex Offenders,” by Anna Salter, Ph.D.

Katharhynn Heidelberg is a journalist in Montrose, Colo.


From Katharhynn Heidelberg.