Late Friday night, as I watched the surreal courthouse scene play out on CNN, I reached out to a former Penn State graduate assistant. Every time Jerry Sandusky’s face comes across the television now, I think of what Matt Paknis went through as a kid.
“Those kids who took the witness stand are heroes,” Paknis said as we spoke Monday afternoon. “A conviction like that, knowing he can’t hurt anyone else, is a validation for the survivors.”
Paknis, who let me write a story after the Penn State story broke last November about his own experience being sexually abused as child, worked for Joe Paterno for two seasons on the offensive side of the ball in the late 1980s.
Now a board member of the support group Male Survivor, he said he felt a connection with the witnesses no one but the abused can understand.
“You’re at that age, where all these racing thoughts are happening in your mind,” he says. “What happens to a lot of kids, what happened to me, is I just dissociated — you end up leaving your body while it’s going on.
“The worst thing is, when there are no parents to protect you, you don’t know where to go.”
That’s why Paknis, too, is in favor of going after the enablers. He was encouraged by the outcome of another case of child sexual abuse in Pennsylvania on Friday. A monsignor in the Philadelphia Archdiocese was found guilty of child endangerment for reassigning pedophile priests. In the first conviction of a prominent Roman Catholic official since the child sexual abuse scandal that rocked the church broke, a monsignor who supervised priests was shown to be more concerned with the church’s reputation and potential lawsuits than for the child victims.
“If we’re now actively going after the people who enabled the really evil among us, we’re on the right path,” Paknis said.
What happened in Happy Valley is still so sickeningly sad: Under the cover of a charitable foundation, a man took in young boys from at-risk homes, where fathers often left and families were in chaos. He and his wife convinced everyone they cared about these abandoned kids; they would look out for them. Then he convinced some of those boys to shower with him. He fondled and raped some of those children.
From the evidence presented in court, many people knew, or at the least had a very good idea that inappropriate contact was going on, more than 10 years ago.
And they did nothing. Actually, that’s not right. They told Sandusky not to bring those kids around Penn State’s main campus anymore. They didn’t take away his keys to the gym and the workout facility. They didn’t call a child protective agency or an off-campus police officer. Their silence enabled Sandusky to abuse more children.
And you know who finally spoke up? One of those abused kids, now a grown adult. More of those boys, some emboldened by the realization they were not alone, came forward as grown men.
Sandusky needs to be condemned as the definition of evil. “A soul murderer,” Paknis said. “In some ways, that’s worse than killing — because that kid has to walk around for the rest of his life knowing what happened to him.”
This is why Tim Curley and Gary Schultz and every other Penn State administrator involved, if found guilty of not reporting an eyewitness account of the rape of a young boy in a shower, should do jail time. If it ever came out that Dottie Sandusky, his wife who took the stand in support of her husband, knew, she should be imprisoned too. Personally, I will never understand how someone who shares a home with another person cannot hear the screams coming from the basement, where Dottie’s husband brought some of the boys down to “play” on his waterbed.
To see this gray-haired bear of a man, who by all accounts had the disarming countenance of Winnie the Pooh, being led out in handcuffs was to see the opposite spectrums of humanity: A monster finally caged, put there by the kids he wounded so badly.
If we take nothing away from this, we need to salute those grown men, who told their stories under aliases such as Victim 1, Victim 3 and Victim 8, when their aliases should have been Adult Survivor 1, Adult Survivor 3 and Courage 8.
See, some of these kids grew up playing sports. They probably have wondered why they didn’t stop it, especially if they were big and strong and felt they could take care of themselves. They never realized until later in life they were brainwashed, preyed upon by a a sick man who was helped by people who never spoke up.
Everyone who definitively knew and didn’t do anything should be held accountable for being complicit for what happened to those boys.
The tragic lesson of this saga: It takes more than one disturbed person to steal a kid’s soul; it takes a village of disconnected people looking the other way.
For previous columns by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.