Blame for the Penn State scandal does not lie with Joe Paterno

Sally Jenkins
Columnist November 8, 2011

Try to forgive Joe Paterno: When he looked at Jerry Sandusky, he didn’t see a dirty old man in a raincoat. He saw a friend, a close colleague, and a churchy do-gooder. He saw a nice guy. You’d have seen the same thing. Think not? You think you can see a clear-cut difference between an alleged child molester and a youth coach? How exactly? By the hunchback and the M-shaped scar on his forehead that says, “I’m a molester”?

It’s sorely tempting to assign Paterno chief blame in the Penn State case, to say that he should have seen Sandusky for what he allegedly was. Unfortunately, the truth is, youth coaches from California to Rhode Island have molested children at every level, sandlot to USA Swimming, and we hardly ever recognize the pervert. We usually shake his hand.

Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

“We would prefer he have some kind of trait,” former FBI agent Ken Lanning says. “That he be ugly or pockmarked so we can say, ‘Oooh, look out for him.’”

Make no mistake, there is deep guilt to be assigned at Penn State, and we will get to that in a minute, to the utterly negligent behavior of university president Graham Spanier and his underlings Gary Schultz and Tim Curley. But first we have to realize that we all have trouble believing that mentors could be molesters.

According to Lanning, who spent 35 years profiling pedophiles, a hallmark of “acquaintance molesters” is that they tend to be deeply trusted and even beloved. They are not strangers, but “one of us.” They are expert at seducing children and are almost as expert at seducing adults, including parents, into believing in them.

“How do we say to kids, ‘The only way these people differ is, they will be nicer to you than most adults?’” Lanning says. “They will listen to you, and shower you with attention and kindness, and so I want you to watch out for this evil bastard.’”

Until we rid ourselves of the myth of the “predator” in the raincoat preying on angelic victims, our discernment will continue to be clouded, says Lanning, who wrote a Justice Department-sponsored manual, “Child Molesters: A Behavioral Analysis.” And so will our judgment.

With that in mind, now let’s start again. If Sandusky is guilty of molesting, how do we parcel out the responsibility and decide what was preventable? Who should have recognized him, and how?

“Whether it’s the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts, USA Swimming, or Little League, you look at these groups and say, why do they keep screwing this up?” Lanning asks.

According to the “acquaintance molester” profile, it’s probably a mistake to place all of the blame on Paterno personally. Paterno was perhaps in the worst position to see or judge the alleged behavior, because Sandusky was his valued assistant from 1966-1999.

“It’s hard to identify those people close to you as a potential molester, because you know them so well,” Lanning says. No one wants to believe such a thing of a friend.

Which is exactly why someone at Penn State’s institutional level should have done better. It was the responsibility of Paterno’s more dispassionate superiors Spanier, Schultz and Curley to take a much colder-eyed, distanced organizational view of Sandusky’s alleged behavior. Instead, they failed all along the line.

“An organization is bound to a higher standard; it has an obligation to rise above” the personal, Lanning says.

Forget the question of whether Sandusky is guilty as charged of molesting at least eight boys. Spanier, Schultz and Curley couldn’t necessarily recognize whether he was indeed a molester or falsely accused. But they were obliged to at least be alert to the basic patterns and conditions that led to trouble. Instead they ignored them.

What kind of leaderless fool organization allegedly let a 60-year-old man take showers with 10-year-old boys on its premises, no matter how innocently? What kind of leaderless fool organization let kids use Penn State’s weight room facilities at night without monitoring? What kind of leaderless fool organization let Sandusky’s Second Mile charity operate on campus without respecting the basic literature — which dates from 1939 Boy Scout handbooks — that shows molesters use youth-serving organizations to meet victims, and that deprived pre-adolescent boys are an extremely troubled, craving, and vulnerable group?

Answer: a totally arrogant and incompetent one. Graham Spanier, your time is up.

If Sandusky is guilty, he used Penn State’s mystique as a powerful tool of seduction, and its reputation as a cover, luring boys with the chance to run on the field, and see the inside of the locker room. He allegedly took them to practice, and into the weight room, worked them out, and then proposed taking a shower.

Schultz got his first report of this kind of thing in 1998 and wrote it off as “horsing around.” What kind of fool administrator didn’t read the long literature that says this kind of “horsing around” is how child molesters “groom” victims, draw them closer and and wear away their inhibitions?

Lanning’s manual says, “Loyalty to the leader and group, competition among boys, a system of rewards and recognition, and indoctrination through oaths and rituals can all be used to control, manipulate, and motivate victims. Leaders in such organizations should be carefully screened and closely monitored.”

We need to ask ourselves what the worst sex abuse stories of the past few years have in common. Sports are hardly the only area deviants infiltrate; but they are one in which identifying them is made even harder by the tendency to consider identification an act of disloyalty, because it might damage an iconic franchise. And that is a hallmark of institutions that fail to protect victims. You want a profile of a place that harbors a profiled molester? Here it is:

“This is something that can happen to all institutions, but it is worse in organizations that have a certain aura about them,” Lanning says. “Two of the largest organizations in this country that have the biggest problem with this are the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts. When you have that image, a program idolized as pure, the harder it is to admit you’ve made a mistake. If you have this need to appear to be perfect, the harder it is to admit that you made an error in judgment.”

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