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Who We Think We Are: Jerry Sandusky & Us

I’ve followed news of the Penn State child sex abuse scandal and the trial of former Penn State Assistant Coach Jerry Sandusky pretty closely. My Reability and Instapaper reading lists and archives include a number of news stories and longer articles about both. I haven’t written much about either here, until now.

That’s partly because I didn’t see much point in rehashing much of what was already being said everywhere else, and partly because I wasn’t sure just what I wanted to say. Until now, that is. Much of what I’ve read about the Penn State case convinced me of Sandusky’s guilt, long before the jury reached the same conclusion. Much of what I’ve read about similar scandals suggests at least a couple of answers to the nagging questions that make it difficult to look away from the miserable state of affairs at Penn State.

I guess this post is kind of my version of Slate’s “Longform Guide” series of posts (one of my favorite features at Slate). In fact, Longform itself was the source of the articles that led to this post. (If you’re a fan of long form journalism, and are always looking for something to read, Longform and LongReads are great sources.) Taken together, I think they suggest an answer to the questions that always arises when sex abuse scandals of this size and scope come to light: How could this go on for so long? How could people have looked the other way for so long?

So, following Slate’s example, here is my own “Longform Guide to Child Sex Abuse Scandals.”

“In the Ruins of a Blue and White Empire”

Luke Dittrich • Esquire • June/July 2012

Why the abuse at Penn State went on so long, and how it was exposed.

We can’t tell you the runner’s name, of course.

We can tell you only the name that the Thirty-third Statewide Investigating Grand Jury of Pennsylvania anointed him with in its presentment.

Victim 1.

They didn’t call him Victim 1 because he was the first victim.

They called him Victim 1 because his story led to the unearthing of all the other stories.

Victim 2. Victim 3. Victim 4. Victim 5. Victim 6. Victim 7. Victim 8.

“Prep-School Predators: The Horace Mann School’s Secret History of Sexual Abuse”

Amos Kamil • The New York Times • June 2, 2012

Decades of sex abuse at a prestigious New York prep school went unreported, but not unnoticed.

Ten years after graduation, four Horace Mann friends and I decided to go on a camping trip. We had been close in high school but later scattered across the country. And we all sensed that the next 10 years — careers, marriages, families — would pull us even farther apart. So we tied our sleeping bags to our backpacks and headed up to the Sierra Nevada for a week of hiking and bonding. If you don’t know why its so important to choose the best backpack for this type of trip, read this tactical backpack guide by Shooting Authority by following the link.

One night after a particularly grueling hike, we sat around the campfire, eating some burned vegetarian meal and enjoying that pleasing quiet that falls between exhaustion and sleep.

Then one friend cleared his throat. (Like many people in this article, my friend asked me not to use his full name, because of the sensitivity of the subject matter and the fact that these events took place when he was a minor. I’ll call him by his middle name, Andrew.) “Guys, I have to tell you something that happened to me when we were at H.M. Do you remember Mr. Wright, the football coach?” Our metal utensils ceased clanking.

Speaking calmly and staring into the flames, he told us that when he was in eighth grade, Wright sexually assaulted him. “And not just me,” he added. “There were others.” First Wright befriended him, he said. Then he molested him. Then he pretended nothing happened.

No one knew what to say, at least at first. But then slowly, the rest of us started telling stories, too. One of the guys talked about a teacher who took him on a field trip, and then invited him into his bed in the hotel room they were sharing. (My friend fled, walking in the rain for hours until the coast seemed clear.) Another told a story about a teacher who got him drunk and naked; that time, no one fled. We talked about the steakhouse dinner, which was a far cry from abuse, but an example of how easy it can be for boundaries to blur and how hard it can be, in the moment, for students to get their bearings. Finally, we all went to sleep.

Then we went home, and another 20 years slid by.


“Grace in Broken Arrow”

Kiera Feldman • This Land • May 23, 2012

The story of a child sex abuse scandal at a private Christian academy near Tulsa, Oklahoma.

No more sleepovers. No more babysitting, or car rides home. No more being alone with children or “lingering hugs given to students (especially using your hands to stroke or fondle).” Aaron Thompson—Coach Thompson to his PE students—sat in the principal’s office at Grace Fellowship Christian School as his bosses went through the four-page Corrective Action Plan point by point. It was October of 2001, the same month Aaron added “Teacher of the Week” to his resume.

Grace’s leader, Bob Yandian—“Pastor Bob” as everyone calls him—wasn’t there: no need, he had people for this kind of thing. Pastor Bob’s time was better spent sequestered in his study, writing books and radio broadcasts. His lieutenant, Associate Pastor Chip Olin, was a hardnosed guy, “ornery as heck,” people said. Olin brought a USA Today article on the characteristics of child molesters to the meeting. At age 24, Olin explained, Aaron was acting immature and unprofessional, and someone might get the wrong idea.

The first two recommendations of what became known as the “do not fondle” agreement were prayer and “building relationships with young men and women of your age group in Sunday School and Singles group activities” at Grace Church, which ran the school. “Leaders in the kingdom are judged not so much by what they accomplish as by the character they reveal—who they are before what they do,” the document continued (pages 1, 2, 3, & 4). Aaron was to “live a lifestyle above reproach”—to act such that no one would question his character.

In some ways, the backdrops couldn’t be more different: one of the most “tradition-rich and storied” college football programs in the country; an independent college preparatory school in New York City; and a private Christian academy in Tulsa Oklahoma. What stood out to me about Penn State and the other two stories were the ways in which they were alike.

There’s a passage in the Penn State article that I think sums it up. It’s about Dr. Wayne Sebastianelli, the head team physician for the Penn State football team, whom Joe Paterno deemed “Too small, too slow, and too weak to play at Penn State,” but good enough to take care of Paterno and his team — and fast enough tackle a Temple running back who was about to cream Paterno.

He protected Coach when he could, treated him when he couldn’t, like when a couple of players ran into him during a game a few years ago, breaking one of his brittle legs.

When this whole thing started, last November, he made the conscious decision not to read about it. He absorbed the general outline, of course: Jerry Sandusky, Penn State’s longtime defensive coordinator, arrested on multiple counts of child sexual abuse. Coach drawn into the mess when it came out that a decade ago an assistant had told him that he’d seen Sandusky doing something of a sexual nature to a preadolescent boy in the showers of the football building.

More than that, though, Dr. Sebastianelli chooses not to know. He might be the only person in this town who’s never even glanced at the twenty-three-page-long grand jury report, that relentless collection of short stories.

Victim 1. Victim 2. Victim 3. Victim 4. Victim 5. Victim 6. Victim 7. Victim 8.

“Everybody felt challenged, everybody felt confused,” he says. “Everything’s obviously still unclear, what’s true, what’s untrue, what’s fact, what’s fiction.”

So he didn’t try to figure it out, didn’t try to make sense of it. He didn’t ask exactly what Coach had been told. He didn’t ask why Coach didn’t do more. He decided, instead, to block it out, to deflect it, to keep it out of his brain so that it couldn’t infect his memories, his certainties.

So that he could keep doing what he’s always done.

“I think we were all concerned about Coach,” he says. “That was the main focus for me.”

“Worrying about taking care of the team.”

“Taking care of Coach and his family.”

“I sort of made that my focus.”

“I was so intensely concentrating on what I needed to that the surrounding stuff really was …”

He trails off.

People look away. People trail off. People don’t try to figure it out. People don’t ask about what they don’t want to know about. People worry about taking care of their own.

There are other differences between the stories. The Penn State and Grace Church stories focus on the sexual abuse of boys by adult men. The Horace man article in the New York Times focused on the same problem, but once it was published and widely read alumni began gathering online to share their own accounts of abuse. Abuse stories began to pile up, and it became clear that female students were abused as much as boys.

Many of the adults accused of abusing students at Horace Mann are deceased, and thus beyond the reach of justice. Even surviving Horace Mann faculty — like Tek Young Lin, who admitted having sex with “maybe three” of his students — are unlikely to face charges of any kind. New York’s statute of limitations requires that accusations be made in court by the time the victim is 23-years-old. Many of the accusations are about alleged incidents of abuse that happened decades ago. So it’s unlikely that victims will every get justice via the criminal or civil courts.

The Horace Mann story implicated several adults — teachers, coaches, etc. At both Penn State and Grace Church, there was only one offender. And at both Penn State and Grace Church, the offenders were ultimately prosecuted and convicted. Aaron Thompson, the 24-year-old gym teacher who molested a number of boys at Grace Church Christian School was ultimately sentenced to 25 years.

What links these three cases comes down to matters of community, identity, and authority.


As different as they are, the backdrop for the abuse in each story was essentially the same. Whether a football program at a major university, a fundamentalist Christian academy, or a prestigious New York prep school, the abuse took place in the setting of a close knit community with its own rules, mores, and/or traditions that set it apart from the surrounding community.

In a sense, being set apart from the community at large also set these small, closely-knit communities above the surrounding community, at least in the eyes of the members of the smaller community. Whether it was athleticism, economic class, or religious faith, each had something special, that not only set it apart, but was a source of unity and identity — something to be proud of, and something to be protected.


6a00d83451cc8269e20115714d20f5970c 800wi“We are Penn State,” read some of the signs carried in demonstrations, after the abuse scandal broke, and two Penn State icons fell; Jerry Sandusky arrested, and Joe Paterno terminated after news of the abuse charges against Sandusky, and Paterno’s role in covering up the charges became public knowledge.

It was a statement of unity and identity from a community that felt, perhaps rightly so, that it was also under indictment. News article and op-eds called into question the character of those directly involved, but of the “culture” of Penn State football and the community that both supported it and was supported by it.

It may be difficult to understand how a football team or coach could come to symbolize so much to a community, especially for anyone who hasn’t had the experience of going to a “football school” — a university with a long football tradition, and a football program that has become a major source of revenue and identity for the school and the surrounding community.

I went to one; the University of Georgia. I can tell you that if aliens landed in Athens, GA, on game day they would think it was a religious event. From thei tailgaters, the conspicuous consumption of copious quantities of alcohol, to the red and black attire, the red and black painted faces/bodies of the attendees, to the mass gathering “‘tween the hedges.” It has the sound, appearance, and atmosphere of (albeit frenzied) worship, and the coaches and players are gods and demigods.

In the case of Grace Church, religion was the foundation of the community’s identity, and it’s source of its economic well-being. Thus when the leadership in the church first received reports of possible sexual abuse of students by a teacher, one of their first impulses was to protect the school from a scandal that would lead to families leaving the school en mass, and taking their tuition dollars with them. (Indeed, the article about Grace suggested that being a member of the church and sending one’s children to the church’s academy was a show of one’s loyalty and devotion just to the church, but to God himself.)

As with Grace, the faculty and administration had a vested interest in avoiding scandals that would make parents feel less certain that Horace Mann was the right place to send their children, and their tuition checks. Likewise, Penn State’s administration certainly had a interest in hushing up any scandal that might lead to fewer big checks from wealthy alumni, fewer tickets sold to games, and less revenue from the football program.

But that doesn’t quite add up to “We are Penn State.” In all three cases loss of revenue by the institutions in question was a major factor, and with that comes more personal concerns about lost income. But in all three cases, the both the individuals who played major roles in covering up the abuse and protecting the abusers, and — in the case of Penn State — rallying to support those same individuals were also protecting someone else: Themselves.

In all three cases, the abuse took place in the context of tightly knit, passionately protected communities in which people had invested their own identities to a significant degree.

“We are Penn State,” is a statement of identification that signifies far more than mere status as an employee or student of the University, or a supporter or fan of the football program. Even if those declaring their identification as and with Penn State may have difficulty explaining to the unexactly what they mean by that statement, the faithful know without having to explain to one another.

That statement of identification can be applied to all three of them. “We are Grace Church,” may not have passed the lips of anyone who worked to keep allegations of abuse “in the family,” or within the community, rather than turning the matter over to the law. (The law of man, perhaps?) But it was understood, just the same as at Penn State. A public scandal would not just cause the church to be shown in a negative light, but also shine that light on the individuals so closely identified with the institution.

Likewise, “We are Horace Mann,” may not have been stated quite so explicitly but everyone involved in denying or dealing with the allegations of abuse knew that Horace Mann reputation had a lot of caché and carried a lot of weight in the right circles. A simple mention of the name was probably met with nods of recognition of all it conveyed. Whether it signified a certain degree of wealth, status or both, those who worked at the school, went to the school, or sent their children to the school, understood that their association with it said something about them.

It said something about who they were, and a sex abuse scandal called all that they thought they knew about the institution into question, and chunk of their identity along with it. If it can happen here, in this special community of the elite or the elect, what does that say about this place? And by extension, what does that say about me? The simplest, easiest explanation is that it can’t happen here. That one simply must believe if the world is to continue to make sense.

But someone has to make it possible to believe.


At Grace Church, it was the four-page Corrective Action Plan written by Pastor Chip Olin, and signed by Aaron Thompson in the presence of administrator John Dunlavey.  It included so many commandment-like prohibitions like “no lingering hugs,” that it became know as the “do no fondle” document. Along with fondling, the document forbade Thompson from being with a student without the “direct supervision” (not merely the permission) of the child’s parent or guardian. That meant no more sleepovers, babysitting, tutoring, or rides home, etc.

The most telling part of the document came on page four, where Thompson wrote before signing the document:

I do understand that this is not an admission of guilt, but that this serves to protect both myself and Grace Fellowship.

He may have been the only party involved to state as much outright. But he was considered the “golden boy” of Grace. Having grown up in the church, gone to college, graduated, and returned to teach, He was Grace Fellowship. At the very least, he represented the very best of what that community of believers thought it stood for.

The “do not fondle” agreement was the result of a kind of critical mass of abuse allegations coming to the attention of the administration, often brought up by parents whose sons were among Thompson’s victims. Similar to the letters Sandusky sent to some of his victims, parents produced emails from Thompson to their sons. In one, sent to a seventh grade boy on the school’s basketball team, Thompson described the boy’s genitalia, called him a “stud,” and signed off with “Love, Aaron.” (Not, as the parents noted, “Love in Christ, Aaron.”)

Boys were leaving the school in numbers. All of them had Thompson for P.E., and had frequently been late for their classes after P.E., having been kept late by the P.E. teacher who asked them to help put away equipment. Boys who had no problems to speak of before suddenly became “withdrawn” and moody, angry or even suicidal. Several ended up leaving the school.

There was more than enough, in some cases Yet the response of those in authority was to craft a document the necessity of which should itself have been a sign that someone was deeply, dangerously wrong.

The latest news in the Penn State case is just as bad. Recently released emails indicate that Penn State officials knew something was horribly wrong as early as 2001, and appeared to cover up the incident that involved one of the most searing, sickening mental images from the trial.

With convicted serial child sex abuser Jerry Sandusky behind bars, new questions are surfacing about what Penn State officials knew about a 2001 incident involving the former assistant football coach’s encounter with a boy in the shower — and whether they covered up the incident.

Sandusky sexually abused other boys in the years after the 2001 incident and before his arrest.

CNN does not have the purported e-mails. However, the alleged contents were read to CNN.

The messages indicate former Penn State President Graham Spanier and two other former university officials knew they had a problem with Sandusky after a 2001 shower incident, but apparently first decided to handle it using a “humane” approach before contacting outside authorities whose job it is to investigate suspected abuse.

“This is a more humane and upfront way to handle this,’ Gary Schultz, who was a university vice president at the time, allegedly wrote.

… In an exchange of messages from February 26 to February 28, 2001, Spanier allegedly acknowledges Penn State could be “vulnerable” for not reporting the incident, according to two sources with knowledge of the case.

“The only downside for us is if the message (to Sandusky) isn’t ‘heard’ and acted upon, and we then become vulnerable for not having reported it,” Spanier purportedly writes.

The alleged e-mails among Spanier, Schultz, 62, and former Athletic Director Tim Curley, 57, never mention Sandusky by name, instead referring to him as “the subject” and “the person.” Children that Sandusky brought on campus –some of whom might have been victims — are referred to as “guests.”

Thus did Spanier agree not to report Sandusky to authorities for sexual assaulting a young boy in the team locker room shower, after then graduate assistant Mike McQueary witnessed the assault, and reported it to coach Joe Paterno, who then reported it to an athletic director, who reported it to a supervisor, who then reported it to Spanier.

At Horace Mann, similar reports led to similar efforts to protect the institution and the abuser or abusers, rather than the victims. As at Grace Fellowship and Penn State, reported incidents were handled internally. Just as Sandusky was barred from bringing boys from his Second Mile charity into the showers, and Thompson was forbidden to babysit his students outside of school, some Horace Mann teachers accused of abuse were merely barred from going on overnight field trips.

In all cases, leadership abdicated its responsibility for the victims harmed on its watch, and focused instead on protecting the institution, and by association the accused abusers. In all three cases, those in leadership were so closely identified with their institutions that it’s hard to think of one without thinking of the other.

That close association makes clear how imperative it is that we are able to actually believe the stories we tell ourselves collectively and individually about who we are. That requires a “system that discourages making waves.”

The moral of the Jerry Sandusky saga is this: Pennsylvania State University, as an institution, decided that protecting Joe Paterno’s reputation and winning a few more football games was more important than stopping the ongoing rape of young boys.

Of course, no one ever said anything like that out loud. Indeed, it’s likely that none of the many people who knew or suspected Sandusky was a child molester ever made a conscious calculation that protecting the football program was more important than protecting the boys Sandusky was raping.

Such a level of conscious sociopathic indifference to suffering is fairly rare. What isn’t rare are all the psychological, social, and legal mechanisms that allow someone like Sandusky to flourish in the midst of Our Great Little Town. For at least a decade, and probably far longer, State College was full of people who deliberately closed their eyes to the truth about Sandusky.

… Again, it’s unlikely any of these people ever thought of what they were doing in those terms, i.e., in terms of what they were actually doing, as opposed to what they told themselves they were doing. The human capacity for conscious and unconscious rationalization in the pursuit of craven self-interest is nearly unlimited, especially when those rationalizations are put forth in an institutional context, with all the pressure such contexts put on people to be “team players” and “constructive contributors” to the ongoing mission of those institutions.

In that sense, we are Penn State. All of us. Or we could easily become Penn State, if who we think we are becomes more important than protecting the vulnerable.

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