Sound problems have plagued the Jerry Sandusky trial. The defense attorney struggles to hear witnesses over the throb of the ceiling fans. The judge, concerned, has urged members of the jury to tell him if they can’t hear.

But the trial, in which Sandusky faces 52 counts related to child sex abuse, has exposed deeper problems with communication. Lurking throughout this case is the sound of silence.

For years, according to testimony last week, people who had suspicions about Sandusky said nothing, or didn’t follow up, or convinced themselves that what they were seeing was harmless.

Joe Miller, a wrestling coach, testified that one night he stumbled upon Sandusky and a small boy lying face to face on a mat in a weight room. Sandusky quickly declared that they were practicing wrestling moves, Miller said. After telling Sandusky to turn out the lights and lock up, Miller had a moment of doubt, he said. But he reassured himself:

“Well, it’s Jerry. Jerry Sandusky. He’s a saint. What he’s doing with these kids is fantastic.”

The prosecution presented its case last week, and the defense attorneys for the former Penn State assistant football coach are expected to have their turn starting Monday. But this trial in a vintage county courthouse is shaping up as more than simply a matter of one man’s guilt or innocence. There’s a shadow trial underway, because if the prosecution’s case is correct, many people and important institutions failed to keep Sandusky from preying on boys despite direct eyewitness evidence that he was a pedophile.

A 1998 investigation of Sandusky generated no charges. According to testimony last week, a janitor told his colleagues in 2000 that he’d just seen Sandusky assault a boy in a shower. A few months later, an assistant coach, Mike McQueary, saw another shower attack, he testified. Yet Sandusky continued to have access to children for years. Last November he was arrested, and the prosecution has described him as a serial predator.

The question of broader culpability will eventually materialize in actual courtrooms. The biggest, richest target of lawsuits is Penn State, Sandusky’s former employer. One such suit has already been filed. Penn State’s president, Rodney Erickson, said in interviews before the Sandusky trial that the university will seek to settle the civil cases quickly to keep the alleged victims from being forced to retake the stand.

Those witnesses labored last week through painful testimony. Some sobbed; others were stoic. They often spoke of their own silence — how humiliation and shame kept them from speaking up sooner. They buried, or compartmentalized, the incidents. “I wanted to forget. I was embarrassed,” said a young man identified as “Victim 5” in last fall’s grand jury report, which first detailed the allegations.

“Victim 7” testified, “The more negative things I had sort of pushed into the back of my mind. Sort of like closing a door. Putting things in the attic and closing the door.”

The silence extended to the alleged abuse. The first witness to testify, “Victim 4,” said that throughout the period that Sandusky was abusing him neither Sandusky nor the boy discussed it. “It was basically like whatever happened there never really happened,” he said.

Thus the first full week of the Sandusky trial was something of a tutorial on the nature of sexual abuse. For many people, the subject is literally unspeakable.

Key witness McQueary described his own silence when, he said, he saw Sandusky assaulting the boy in the locker room shower late one evening. He said he was extremely flustered. He slammed his locker door as a signal that someone was watching. He made eye contact with the man and boy in the shower, he said, but there was “no verbiage, no spoken word at all,” McQueary testified.

He said that when he told his father, and later his boss, legendary coach Joe Paterno, what he’d seen, he didn’t use explicit language because he wanted to show “respect” for the sensibilities of the older men.

Paterno told his superiors, but an inquiry resulted in no charges and Sandusky continued to use Penn State facilities. McQueary said he would quickly leave the weight room whenever Sandusky entered. When other people asked about his obvious aversion to Sandusky, he said he’d answer, “I just don’t care to be around him.”

At one point a defense attorney cross-examined John McQueary, the father. He said that when his son told him by phone about the assault, he advised his son to get out of the building.

“What would your son have had to tell you that night for you to call 911?” the defense attorney asked.

John McQueary answered: “He would have had to tell me he saw somebody injured, crying, screaming for — I, I don’t know the answer to that. That sounds like it’s sort of what if to me. I don’t know what he would have had had to tell me. Whatever he saw was over by the time he told me. It’s not like I walked in on it.”

Lawsuits pending

Plaintiff lawyers, some of whom attended the trial this week, are preparing lawsuits that could take years to resolve.

“On another day, those who enabled this to happen will be called to task,” vowed Tom Kline, speaking Wednesday afternoon outside the county courthouse here after his client, “Victim 5,” testified tearfully that Sandusky assaulted him in a shower.

In addition to suing Penn State for negligence, he said, his client would probably sue the Second Mile, a youth charity founded by Sandusky and, according to prosecutors, used by him as a recruiting tool for sex abuse victims. The Second Mile, once a major charity with programs across the state, has announced that it is ceasing operations and transferring its assets to other charities.

Meanwhile, two more criminal cases are pending. Former athletic director Tim Curley and former university vice president Gary Schultz have been charged with perjury and with failure to report child abuse. Both have denied the charges.

Schultz’s attorney, Tom Farrell, pushed back this week against a media report that Schultz had a secret file on Sandusky: “Mr. Schultz did not possess any secret files. All his files were left behind after he retired and were available to his secretaries and his successor.”

Penn State’s board of trustees has hired former FBI director Louis Freeh to investigate what happened. The university says that report should be out this summer and will be released to the trustees and the public simultaneously without being reviewed by the school’s general counsel’s office. Meanwhile, the state criminal probe remains open, as does a federal investigation.

Sandusky’s defense team has focused on inconsistent statements by witnesses to investigators and the grand jury during the multiyear state probe of the former coach. The defense has repeatedly questioned witnesses about why they retained private counsel, and whether they anticipate a big monetary settlement in a civil suit.

Eight adult men took the stand last week to testify about Sandusky abusing them. They ranged in age from 18 to 28. In photos presented in court and projected on a screen, the alleged abuse victims were shown as they were when they were about 11 or 12 or 13, on the cusp of adolescence. They were good-looking boys, thin, smooth-faced, with bright eyes beneath mops of hair.

The alleged abuse varied from child to child. The boys in most cases lacked a father figure, or had some kind of personal or familial trouble, and the coach swooped in like a guardian angel. Sandusky took the boys to Penn State football games. They got to hang out with star athletes. Sandusky told them how much he cared about them.

Several witnesses said that when they tried to distance themselves, Sandusky pursued. The prosecution introduced what the first witness called “creepy love letters” lobbying the boy to continue the relationship.

Whether Sandusky will testify is unclear, but the jury this past week heard an excerpt of Sandusky’s interview last fall with NBC’s Bob Costas.

The jury heard Costas ask, “Are you sexually attracted to young boys, to underage boys?”

Sandusky answered haltingly: “Am I sexually attracted to underage boys? Sexually attracted? No. I enjoy young people. I love to be around them. I — I — but no, no not sexually attracted to young boys.”

Staff writer Jenna Johnson contributed to this report.