Here is the extent of my expertise about this particular issue: I used to work with sex offenders. They were juveniles, but amongst our training materials were videotaped interviews with incarcerated sex offenders who outlined (often in excruciating detail) the ways in which they operated. To a man, each of them explained just how easy it was for them to convince adults of their own innocence. Again and again, they lured children into sexual contact, and again and again, they were able to wriggle free of their responsibility. These men were ministers or coaches or stepparents, each assumed to be above and beyond the sort of cruel behavior that they were accused of, and each of them used the respect they enjoyed as get-out-of-jail free card.
In Sandusky’s case, he was a prominent member of a coaching hierarchy that oversaw an enormously successful and popular team, a team elevated out of all proportion by a community that viewed the Nittany Lions as Gods walking amongst mortals. Sandusky knew this and used it to his advantage, which allowed him to gain and maintain his access to children over the course of generations. For those tasked with the program itself, rocking Happy Valley’s boat – by doing anything about Sandusky (like going to the police) or, more damning, indicting Paterno – was to risk the sanctity and importance and necessity of it all, and so it was that for seemingly every single person with any involvement, that risk was simply too high. Sandusky was allowed to prey on children long after it should have become clear that he was a threat to their well-being and now, the University’s reputation is a shattered wreckage.
The social psychology of this phenomenon is instructive, and a lesson all of us cannot learn often enough. I have a friend who was for years molested by a police officer. The molester was thought to have been above reproach, because he was a cop. He hid behind his badge, and the social trust that imputed to him, to gain access to this boy. Everyone who knew anything about their relationship was glad that this man took such a fatherly interest in this fatherless boy. The situation only broke when the boy, as a man, had something of a breakdown, and went to the authorities. The cop was tried and is in prison for his crimes.
Looking back on it, you think: How did we miss that? That’s easy: nobody expects child molesters in their midst, and certainly nobody expects them to be police officers (or teachers, or priests, or Boy Scout leaders, or football coaches, et al.). Moreover, society cannot function without a significant degree of trust. You can’t get along if you are afraid that every adult who comes into contact with your child is a potential molester. So you trust, and in cases like the church, and Penn State, you trust that the leadership, which may have access to information that you don’t, can be counted on to police the institution.
This is why it is so particularly devastating to the common good when law enforcement officers and religious leaders are found to be corrupt, especially if that corruption is systemic.
I think it’s worth considering as well how ordinary people collude in this sort of thing. In this excerpt from the Freeh Report, “Janitor A” had observed Sandusky performing oral sex on a boy in the locker room showers; “Janitor B” saw something similar:
Janitor B closely followed Penn State football, and knew Sandusky from watching football games. A senior janitorial employee (“Janitor C”) on duty that night spoke with the staff, who had gathered with Janitor A to calm him down. Janitor C advised Janitor A how he could report what he saw, if he wanted to do so. Janitor B said he would stand by Janitor A if he reported the incident to the police, but Janitor A said, “no, they’ll get rid of all of us.”Janitor B explained to the Special Investigative Counsel that reporting the incident “would have been like going against the President of the United States in my eyes…I know Paterno has so much power, if he wanted to get rid of someone, I would have been gone.” He explained “football runs this University,” and said the University would have closed ranks to protect the football program at all costs.
Not only that, but imagine what would have become of these janitors in their community had they come forward with what they knew? They would have been outcasts. This is how abuse continues in families. People become dependent on the illusion, and spite anyone who denies them that comfort.
Pedophiles and molesters are confidence men. As Sam Wilkinson says, they know how to work the system. A priest I knew once upon a time had been suspended by his bishop after he was accused of molestation. I didn’t know this when I met the priest, and completely bought his story that he had run afoul of his bishop because he was a faithful, orthodox Catholic. Yes, yes, isn’t it horrible how these liberal bishops treat good men. I fell for it, because he was highly charismatic, and his story fit a narrative I was prepared to believe. I only found out the truth when he tried the same tactic on a friend whose theological beliefs are more liberal, but portrayed himself as the victim of a harsh and unyielding conservative bishop. We compared stories, my friend and I, got suspicious, and started digging.
The accusation against the priest has never been resolved, as far as I know, and he may be innocent. The point is, he is and was a liar, and a manipulative liar, and he used his clerical collar and his intuitive knowledge of how to work people to ingratiate himself. You think you can see these people coming, but you can’t. And there aren’t enough laws and rules and programs in the world to protect kids from the willful blindness of adults.