A few miles from the county jail where Penn State predator Jerry Sandusky can take a shower every day, the local paper reports, his wife of 45 years has been
holed up at home with the blinds and curtains drawn.
The blinders, too, are apparently still on. Sure as ever that the former football coach never raped a kid in the school showers, or did anything else he’s been accused of, Dottie Sandusky is, the stock phrase offered up by defense attorney Joe Amendola, “trying to put the pieces back together,’’ whatever that means.
The case is far from over — two more accusers came forward during the trial, including Jerry and Dottie’s own adopted son, Matt. Two high-ranking former Penn State officials will soon go to trial, too, charged with lying to a state grand jury that’s still investigating, and with failure to report allegations about Sandusky’s sick behavior — eyewitness accounts from their own employees. Since he was found guilty last week, on 45 counts of violating 10 kids over 15 years, there’s been a lot of hopeful talk about the message his conviction sends to victims everywhere, that even a bunch of fatherless kids nobody was looking out for can tell the truth about a powerful man and be believed.
But when Dottie does venture from her home, to visit him in jail, as she has been doing, she can do so without any worry that she, too, might soon have a cell of her own.
Which is a shame, in my view; teachers, therapists, even priests have a legal duty to report attacks on children, but it’s murkier for spouses, because the “spousal privilege’’ that prevents a wife from ever having to testify against her husband in effect puts the protection of a marriage above the safety of a child. And what kind of message does that send others in Dottie’s situation?
Jurors who found Sandusky guilty of child rape believed the eight young men who took the stand to accuse him of violating them, over and over, in that house with the drapes drawn, while she was home. One of them told the jury that unless the basement was soundproof — and it wasn’t — she would have to have heard his screams.
Dottie later testified that she didn’t hear any such thing, and suggested that the young men were in the wrong. “Conniving,’’ she called one of them.
But even “if she simply was purposely ignorant,’’ said longtime Frederick County, Md. prosecutor Scott Rolle, “that’s probably not enough’’ to bring her to account for any part she may have played in the debasement that went on in the playroom downstairs.
In Rolle’s 25 years as a prosector, he saw many a horrified, heartbroken wife call the cops on the predator she’d married.
But sometimes, he says, a child molester’s Mrs. protects him instead. With the stakes so high, “people sometimes convince themselves they didn’t see what they saw,’’ hear what they heard, or know what they know. Which certainly comes in handy on the witness stand: “If you can convince yourself it didn’t happen, then you can convincingly say you don’t know anything.”
Usually, when we think of the wives of men caught up in sex scandals, we think of wronged women – the kind of “Good Wife’’ who, thank goodness, is no longer required to stand by her famous husband’s side in pearls, pumps and obvious pain as he tearfully tells the world that he is a “proud gay American,’’ as former N.J. governor Jim McGreevey did. Or apologizes for a “very serious sin,’’ a la Louisiana Senator David Vitter, after he was accused of carrying on with prostitutes.
When the sex scandal involves child rape, however, a wife who protects her pedophile husband is herself shielded, to the point that the complicity of the not-so-good wife is almost impossible to prosecute.
To go on living with a man who is beloved, successful, and a prolific pervert, maybe one would have to choose not to know that those screams coming from the basement weren’t the TV. And hey, if even the revered Joe Paterno stayed mum after hearing that his defensive coordinator sexually used children, then who was she to turn on the lights and say the party’s over?
We know that predators prey on the more vulnerable, who they can later paint as unstable; that’s standard. But they also tend to choose spouses who can be counted on to suppress any unpleasant ideas that might occur to them.
Is 69-year-old Dottie that kind of woman?
They met in college, and in her husband’s 2000 memoir, “Touched,’’ even the chapter called “Dottie Gross,’’ her maiden name, isn’t really about her at all. Much of the book is a bouquet to his parents, who also ran a boys home. And he’s plenty emotional about children, who he says “always have and always will get to my soft spot.”
But his description of meeting and courting Dottie includes not a single reference to anything about her that specifically appealed to him – no memory of how she looked, or what she said, or that funny thing she did that was just her all over.
Instead, we’re told, “I don’t know whether the love bug had hit me right away,’’ and “I was always very shy and backward, never one to be aggressive socially.” Finally, he got a “little push’’ in Dottie’s direction from his mother, who invited her to one of his softball games.
“I worked with kids on the playground in those days,’’ he wrote, “and Dottie would often find her way there to keep me company.’’ A photo taken the night before their wedding is striking because Jerry and his parents are smiling widely and Dottie, who was quite beautiful, and her
parents, too, all look so somber.
His description of their early marriage is an odd run-down of his failures in the manly art of home repairs. And in between generalities about the “old-fashioned” Sandusky clan eating most meals together, he describes Dottie more as a mother than spouse. “Dottie was the leader,’’ he says at one point. And at another he tells us, “Dottie has always been there to look after them when I was away, and usually from the minute I was back in town I became another big kid for her to supervise.’’
In some counties in the Washington area, a parent can go to jail for chronically failing to get her kid to school on time, but nowhere in America is a woman with “another big kid...to supervise” held responsible for willful ignorance.
“I believe I live a good part of my life in a make-believe world,’’ Jerry wrote in his creepy memoir. “I enjoyed pretending as a kid, and I love doing the same thing as an adult with these kids.”
Maybe a woman in that situation would have to get pretty creative, too, in filling in some blanks of her own. But though in theory, her testimony in her husband’s defense could open her up to charges of perjury or obstructing justice, in reality such a case would go nowhere.
At one point in her husband’s trial, Amendola, jokingly compared the case to a soap opera – “General Hospital,’’ maybe, or, hahaha, “All My Children,” get it? My favorite daytime drama was “One Life to Live,’’ set in fictional Llanview, Penn., where people were always getting married to avoid having to testify against one another. But the more apt TV comparison is to “The Sopranos,” and specifically Carmela, the mob wife who lives the life, and doesn’t want to know any more than she has to about any number of things.
It isn’t that I don’t feel for Mrs. Sandusky’s very real predicament, looking back on her nearly half a century with a widely-loved monster. But she was there, too, with her eyes squeezed shut. Her life as she knew it no doubt did end when her husband was arrested, as Amendola said in his emotional closing argument to the jury. And her punishment now is that life as she knew it never existed at all.
Melinda Henneberger is a Post political writer and anchors “She the People.” Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.