When news of former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky’s alleged sex crimes broke, I froze in my steps. My stomach knotted. A fog seemed to fill my head, and all I could think was “It’s happening again.” Then “I wonder if he has a wife and kids." I wasn’t reacting as a college-football fan; I was reacting as the ex-wife of a pedophile.
Just shy of seven years ago, my life and the lives of my two children were turned upside down. The man I had been married to for more than a decade had been arrested as a part of an FBI sting to bring down NAMBLA, the North American Man-Boy Love Association, an advocacy group for pedophiles that supports an “end to the extreme oppression of men and boys in mutually consensual relationships.” I was a well-educated, philanthropic, 39-year-old mother who, until recently, was living a charmed Dallas life, married to a well-liked dentist who had been living a lie for our entire relationship.
A former youth-ministry volunteer at a local church, an energetic volunteer at our kids’ elementary school, and a favorite at their Y-Guides outings, my ex-husband, Todd, turned out to be a criminal who brought tremendous harm, both physically and emotionally, to prepubescent boys. He was an “inner circle” member of NAMBLA—a member of its board of directors—wanted by the feds. Throughout our marriage, which ended in a confusing divorce shortly before the FBI swept in, I believed him when he said he was traveling to dental conventions—when in fact, he was attending pedophile conferences. He kept a secret mailbox at the local post office, where he received his pedophilia newsletters and other suspicious mail. We never found any proof of illegal Internet activities—his hard drive had been cleaned—except for a printed-out receipt for a porn video of young boys. Often, as I eventually learned, these predators are masters of deceit, creating a façade of the “ideal family” to protect their image, or perhaps convince themselves that they’re not a deviant to society, all the while acting on their sick desire to engage in sexual acts with kids.
I know firsthand that someone can be married to a man for years, share a bed with him, and still not know that he spent his days as a predator.
I have never met Dorothy Sandusky, Jerry Sandusky’s wife of four decades, who goes by “Dottie,” nor have I met any of their six grown, adopted children. Yet I feel like I’ve walked in the very painful shoes I imagine they’re walking in today. In the wake of the Penn State allegations, many people are publicly wondering, “Did Dottie know?” And “how could she not know?” I’m sure people wondered that about me, because I wondered it about myself. While I would never be so bold as to presume what Sandusky’s loved ones knew, it seems entirely plausible to me that he was living a “secret life” right under their noses; that he took great pains to hide his alleged abusive behaviors from those closest to him. Sex offenders’ families are often collateral damage to their crimes.
Of course, it’s also entirely plausible that Dottie and other adults living under his roof knew about these alleged criminal behaviors—and if this proves true, they should be tried for failure to report suspected abuse. But I know firsthand that someone can be married to a man for years, share a bed with him, raise children with him, and still have no clue that he spent his days as a predator of young boys. I never suspected a thing.
I cringe as I remember the days that followed my initial haze of “white noise” after learning about my recent ex-husband’s crimes. It took a while for the numbness that followed the initial shock to wear off. While dodging phone calls and house visits from media, I spent hours curled up in a ball, wanting to die. I didn’t leave my home for months, other than to visit my attorney’s office. I couldn’t bear to face or even speak to anyone outside my family and best friend. The shame and humiliation were overbearing.
It was only after my ex-husband was arrested that the marital problems we’d been having for years made sense. Over time, we’d begun to detach from one another, and I’d feel relieved when he traveled; trips I later learned were predatory. While his crimes eventually explained why I’d felt like such a failure at marriage, they also put my already-fragile self-esteem into dire straits. As a woman, I felt repulsed that during the more than 10 years we were married, my ex-husband preferred physical contact with young boys over me. As a mother, I was angry that he had claimed to love our children, then committed crimes that revealed anything but love.
The next few weeks and months would bring legal motions, court hearings and a host of “discoveries” about the life Todd had been living while he was my husband. As we cleaned out his dental office, I found folders that had been locked in file cabinets, filled with NAMBLA newsletters. In his home, which my children and many of their friends frequented, I found adult male pornography stashed in cabinets and a host of teen magazines filled with photos of young male stars. Throughout it all, I was overcome with concern over whether he had abused our children, who were only 8 and 10 at the time, and grief over the loss of innocence and the pain he caused his young victims. He was eventually sentenced to only 18 months in prison, then given the maximum of 12 years supervised release. We no longer have any contact with him or his family.
So what does the future hold for Sandusky’s collateral damage? The primary victims, the boys allegedly abused by this man, will hopefully begin to heal and work through living the rest of their lives with some semblance of peace and happiness, as their families undergo a similar process. The other victims, his own family, will likely grapple with anger as a result of lies and betrayal. While my ex-husband no longer has parental rights, my children have had to work through the emotional aftermath of his actions at each development milestone. The trauma is never “done”; they’re forced to revisit what happened at every stage of their young lives.
As for Sandusky’s family, I suspect they have many painful months ahead as they sift through the legal tornado of charges, the scrutiny of the public, and worst of all, if he's found guilty, the self-doubt of “How did we not see this?” Regardless of her actions, when the lights go out at night, Dottie is alone with her thoughts and must wonder, “What has he done to these innocent boys?” and “Did he lay a hand on our children or grandchildren?” We can only hope that, when the dust settles and those who knew of alleged abuses and did not report them are punished, this case provides us all with insight into the “red flags” of child predators. We can only hope that the light at the end of this very dark tunnel finds us empowered to do more to prevent child abuse.