Jerry Sandusky was an icon. He was fun, motivating, successful, trustworthy. He was a coach, a mentor, a family man, a churchgoer and a dedicated philanthropist who split his life between two pursuits: Penn State football and helping disadvantaged kids.
Now, Sandusky is alleged to have repeatedly courted, groomed and abused young boys for at least 15 years. Those who know him well can’t believe the accusations.
But police, prosecutors and sex crime experts say that Sandusky’s alleged abuse is illustrative of sex predation across the country. It is an extremely high-profile version of what police departments and social services offices see regularly: A man in a position of trust is accused of abusing those who are most vulnerable.
Capt. Bill Carson of the Maryland Heights, Mo., police department, a 32-year veteran who has studied imprisoned sex offenders, noticed similarities between his cases and the Penn State case right away.
“I interviewed a lot of charismatic people that would appear to be really nice people if you didn’t know what they were in prison for,” he said. “They came across as being very pleasant. A lot of them had been in a position of trust. They were youth pastors or school teachers or YMCA volunteers, Boy Scout leaders, Little League coaches.
“They were well respected and well thought of in their career,” Carson said. “And when the charges came down, everyone was shocked.”
Sandusky is alleged to have pursued what appears to be a long grooming process that involved his infiltrating the lives of his alleged victims, spending private time with them, and ultimately cajoling them into increasingly sexual situations. At a program such as Penn State’s, access to the football field, to the players and to the facilities would be attractive to fans of all ages, and perhaps especially to young boys.
A Pennsylvania grand jury said Sandusky pursued boys using his position at Penn State and at the Second Mile, a charity he founded for disadvantaged youths.
“What the grand jury report and the people we’ve been talking to show is a luring of young boys into being enamored of Sandusky’s stardom in the community, his ability to grant access to a citadel of sports fame and stadiums and contact with football players and bowl games,” said David Marshall, a Washington lawyer who is working with others who allege abuse in the case. “All of that certainly is designed for, and would have the effect of, making someone feel like they were in a very special relationship with a very special person.”
The Sandusky case is different in that it has forever affected a major college football program and a university with a previously sterling reputation. But the experts and law enforcement officials say the vast majority of predators share many of the same traits as Sandusky. They are teachers, counselors, clergymen and coaches who might be close to kids anyway, so the amount of time they spend with children and the close relationships they build don’t raise too many questions.
A similar pattern may be emerging at Syracuse University, where, after the Sandusky case became public, three men accused a longtime assistant basketball coach of molesting them when they were boys. Syracuse Chancellor Nancy Cantor fired Bernie Fine, 65, on Sunday — saying the emerging allegations “have shaken us all” — and law enforcement authorities are investigating. Fine has not been charged with a crime and has called the accusations “patently false.”
Sandusky likewise says he is innocent — and his attorney says that he will be vindicated — but what has emerged in court documents and from alleged victims paints a portrait familiar to police.
Sandusky’s attorney, Joe Amendola, said people have unfairly portrayed his client and have been too quick to judge a man who has a stellar record as a mentor and coach. He said Sandusky has worked with thousands of disadvantaged children since the 1970s.
“He’s a big, overgrown kid,” Amendola said. “It doesn’t mean he abused these kids. You can put him in that mold, or you can put him in the mold of someone who loves being around kids and helping kids.”
Amendola said Sandusky’s work with children makes him an easy target for such allegations.
“The bottom line is that if you want to take the approach that Jerry Sandusky is a pedophile, you can fit that idea into what he did, working with kids and the Second Mile,” Amendola said. “Or, you could say he was raised in a family who helped kids, and when he became an adult he wanted to help kids, too.”
The shock in State College is similar to the shock other communities have felt when a revered leader has been accused of such crimes. Sandusky, 67, had been a part of Penn State football since the 1960s, after playing there. In 1977, he founded the Second Mile, which ultimately reached thousands of children.
Sandusky, a married father of six adopted children, presented himself as a role model; the kind of guy parents would trust with their kids.
“Jerry is like the guy next door,” said John Skorupan, who played linebacker for Sandusky at Penn State and later played in the NFL for the Buffalo Bills and New York Giants. Skorupan also took part in more than 15 charity golf tournaments for the Second Mile. “He’s your best friend who will do anything for you. He’s there to lead the charge. He’s fun, enthusiastic, light-hearted, but also intense.”
Those qualities, law enforcement officials say, are often what make predators so effective. They befriend the child and the child’s parents, earn their trust, develop a psychological hold over them and then begin their abuse. Because of their influence and standing, the predators know their word will probably be believed over a victim’s.
“They go toward vulnerable victims, people in vulnerable families, people with disabilities,” said a federal prosecutor who has handled sex crime cases, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about Sandusky’s case.
“Just the fact that it’s a person in power elevates the situation. From the victim’s point of view, they’re put in the position of being a nobody, and if they accuse the person of abusing them, they’re going up against a powerful and well-liked person. Who’s going to believe them?”
It is that concern that experts say keeps victims quiet, sometimes for decades. Attorneys for accusers in Sandusky’s case said the boys felt silenced in part because they didn’t want to play a role in hurting Penn State, which holds enormous community influence.
As those who have come forward alleging abuse have told similar stories to a Pennsylvania grand jury and to their attorneys. Sandusky allegedly wooed them with gifts, money, trips, attention and access to the Penn State football program before ultimately making a move toward sexual activity, sometimes in a bedroom in his home, sometimes in a Penn State shower, sometimes on trips, the grand jury report said.
Amendola said Sandusky spent a lot of time with children because he was committed to helping them face challenges in their lives.
Attorneys for those who say they were abused are learning details as they begin to open up. For them, the alleged abuse was a secret they harbored for years and are just now learning how to cope with.
“People that we have talked to have told us that Sandusky told them that they were very special and that he’d take care of them and protect them,” said Justine Andronici, a State College lawyer who is working with accusers in the case with Marshall and State College lawyer Andrew Shubin. “As more victims come forward, we believe that all of Jerry Sandusky’s victims are going to see that his promises are just more lies designed to keep them silent about the sexual abuse.”
Andronici said she is confident that the Penn State community will rally around the victims and protect them.
“The people we are speaking to are at all stages of dealing with this,” Andronici said. “Some of them have expressed some amount of relief, and others are in extreme distress.”
Experts say the silver lining of the Sandusky case is that it has brought the issue of sexual predation to the fore and appears to be bringing some victims out of hiding.
In Syracuse, for example, two former ballboys came forward after Sandusky’s arrest to accuse a coach of molesting them decades ago, and a third person reported that the same coach abused him in 2002. According to school officials, Syracuse investigated some of the allegations in 2005 but could not corroborate them at the time.
And in Manassas, a man in his late 20s reported two weeks ago that he was abused as an elementary school student in the 1990s. Police jumped on the case and arrested the suspect within days. Authorities say they think there might be numerous victims in that case.
“But for this Penn State thing, we probably wouldn’t have known about this,” said Prince William County Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul B. Ebert. “All these guys use their position of authority to try to target vulnerable people.”
Staff writers T. Rees Shapiro in State College, Pa., and staff writer Mary Pat Flaherty and staff researchers Julie Tate and Madonna Lebling in Washington contributed to this report.
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