Where Evil Lies: Our View of the Penn State Scandal

By Maia Szalavitz 11/14/11

Tales of sex abuse of children inside the college football franchise reveal a conspiracy to protect the powerful. For addicts, it's a familiar story.

Local legend Jerry Sandusky was arrested last week in
State College, Pa.
photo via 

When I learned that Penn State’s Jerry Sandusky—the Nittany Lions’ former assistant coach charged on November 5 with 40 criminal counts of sexually abusing eight boys—had founded a program for “troubled youth” in 1977, I couldn’t have been less surprised. You see, if you want to rape, molest and sexually traumatize children—while enjoying impunity for decades and being paid to do what you love—running a program for troubled children is the way to go. Especially if the kids are "disadvantaged"—poor, involved with drugs and/or have addicted parents.

Unfortunately, as a society, we tend to read "disadvantaged" as not only disposable but disreputable and dishonest. We give the benefit of the doubt to those “saints” who will condescend to care for orphans and “crack babies” (a term that addiction researchers now say should be no more acceptable in public discourse than the n-word), not to the children themselves.

When Sandusky and his wife adopted six kids and took others from difficult backgrounds into foster care—thereby founding his charity, The Second Mile, as their own personal foster home—their motives were seen as pure (as is true, no doubt, for most families that make the sacrifices necessary to help these children). But this glow of altruism also allows predators access to easy prey: children whose parents have lost their battles with addiction and/or are incarcerated; many of these kids often already have difficulty distinguishing between affection and abuse—and anyway may have nowhere else to turn.

Such children themselves are at high risk of becoming addicted to drugs—and the Second Mile, now a charity with over $9 million in assets—explicitly seeks out those who are experiencing “a divorce in the family, the death of a parent, impoverishment, a chronically ill sibling, personal health issues, familial substance abuse or neglect,” for its summer camp programs. While the charity now claims that it does background checks on staff and volunteers, it refuses to confirm that one was done on founder Sandusky, who was compensated with close to $60,000 a year for “fundraising and other services” as recently as 2007.

Many residential programs send literature to parents explicitly warning them that their children are likely to make claims about abuse. “Don’t believe this,” they are told. “It’s simply your manipulative offspring trying to get you to bring them home so they can avoid the hard work of recovery.”

Our stereotypes about drug use and “troubled youth” are a huge part of the problem. America is inundated with portrayals of these teens and children as “liars” and “manipulators” whose complaints should rarely be believed. Ironically, former addicts on the recovery bandwagon often reinforce these prejudices, claiming that active alcoholics and drug addicts are inherently untrustworthy, given to lying as though it were breathing. “When is an addict lying?” the “joke” goes: “When his lips are moving.”

Over a decade spent covering the routine emotional, physical and sexual abuses that take place in rehabs and, even more so, in “troubled teen” programs, I’ve seen the devastating results of this stigmatizing stereotype. 

Most of the reporting on the Penn State scandal has so far focused on the alleged perpetrators: the sex predator, Sandusky, and the university leaders who covered up his crimes, including, of course, the “legendary,” even “saintly”(or, to his many critics, "holier than thou") Joe Paterno, “the winningest college football coach in history." Sandusky coached at Penn State for 30 years; Paterno, his boss, for half a century.

Many news stories have likened the child-rape scandal at Penn State to the sexual abuse of children and teens committed by Catholic priests on a global scale. Since no reporting has yet confirmed the most explosive rumor—that Sandusky and the Second Mile were involved in a pedophile ring, pimping out kids for money—this comparison is appropriate mainly regarding the criminal cover-up, whereby Paterno and other top officials failed to report to the police Sandusky’s 2002 rape of a 10-year-old boy in the showers inside a Penn State athletic facility. As a result, Sandusky was free to continue his assaults for seven years, until a vigilant and brave 15-year-old victim and his parents finally contacted law enforcement in 2009.

It’s too early to answer many questions central to this story, but based on the patterns of serial child-sex abusers (not to mention the nature of small-town gossip) it’s likely that more victims will come forward, that Sandusky’s sexual predation predates his founding of The Second Mile in 1977, and that many people, starting with Joe Paterno, knew that there was more to Sandusky’s interest in disadvantaged boys than compassion and charity. A conspiracy of silence protected Sandusky, who had no qualms about being seen traveling, as assistant coach at Penn State, with one of his favorite boys in lieu of his wife, sharing the Nittany Lions’ spotlight as well as a hotel room at night.

“I just got goosebumps, seriously,” the mother of one victim said after the charges were filed. “I just lived with this for so long, and it killed me when people talked about him like he was a god, and I knew he was a monster." The mother of another victim said that she decided not to go public in order to protect her son from certain "vilification."

That reminds me of the things I’ve heard from teen program victims. Many of the residential programs I covered sent literature to parents explicitly warning them that their children are likely to make claims about abuse. “Don’t believe this,” they are told. “It’s simply your manipulative offspring trying to get you to bring them home so they can avoid the hard work of recovery.”

Since most children who get into enough trouble to wind up in a “boot camp” or “troubled teen” program will already have lied to their parents in an effort to avoid getting caught, these warnings rarely raise red flags. Parents are all too ready to side with the institution. They think, “Ah yes, the program knows how to work with these difficult kids,” rather than “Oh my God, how would real abuse ever be revealed in such a place?” 

Having won this crucial parental collusion, predators can operate freely, even brazenly. In many programs I’ve reported on, some sexual abuse is actually conducted publicly: in one program, girls were made to perform lap dances, supposedly to shame them into abandoning promiscuity or, even more incredible, to help them to get over having been sexually abused. This was done in front of dozens of fellow students and staff at the ironically named Mount Bachelor Academy in Oregon.

In a Montana program, a middle-aged man had a teenage girl get on her knees in front of him, while he asked her if she liked giving blowjobs to older men. This was during an “emotional growth seminar,” again, in front of dozens of students and staff. She had been made to dress in a short skirt with “Slut, 25 cents” written on her in lipstick. The boys had been instructed to yell insults at her; like many of the girls in the Oregon program, she was a survivor of prior sexual abuse.

These are examples of sexual abuse–as–“treatment” sanctioned by the institution and conducted publicly; in private, the people who run these programs are even more shameless. There is no federal regulation that requires background checks of staff or access to child-abuse reporting hotlines—or that even bars corporal punishment of children who are locked up with no way of contacting anyone, even their parents. The parents, of course, have been warned not to believe them, anyway.

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Maia Szalavitz is an author and journalist working at the intersection of brain, culture and behavior.  She has reported for Time magazine online, and is the co-author, with Bruce Perry, of Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential—and Endangered, and author of Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids. You can find her on Linkedin and  Twitter.