There isn’t a word—not sick or despicable or appalling or even wretched—that sufficiently describes the nature of the allegations against Jerry Sandusky, the 67-year-old former football coach at Penn State University. Perhaps the only way to accurately convey what the former defensive coordinator stands accused of is to mention the “rhythmic, slapping sounds” of sex that a Penn State graduate assistant named Mike McQueary says he heard upon entering the team’s locker room on a Friday night in the spring of 2002, according to a Pennsylvania grand-jury report.
Sandusky, who spent decades coaching at Penn State, stands accused of sexually molesting at least 10 boys, going back to the 1990s, in a scandal that has tarnished the image of one of America’s most renowned public universities and successful college football programs. And yet much like the child-molestation scandal that marred the reputation of the Catholic Church, what is perhaps most indescribable are not the details of Sandusky’s alleged behavior—for example, how he purportedly used Second Mile, the charity he founded for troubled boys, as a way to seduce them with gifts to earn their trust; it is that Penn State officials knew that something may have been awry as far back as 1998 and yet did nothing to stop the alleged abuses.
In that year the mother of an 11-year-old complained to Penn State police that Sandusky had showered with her son. Though Sandusky has said that nothing sexual occurred, the grand jury found that the police produced an extensive report on Sandusky’s activities and that both high-level Penn State and Second Mile officials were aware of the investigation. No charges were ever officially brought against the veteran coach, but a year later Sandusky retired, prompting speculation that he had been asked to step down in return for covering up the incident—something the former defensive coordinator and university officials deny.
Whatever happened, there appears to be no excuse for the university’s cavalier approach to Sandusky when new allegations emerged in 2002. Rather than directly going to the police, McQueary, a day after reportedly seeing Sandusky and the boy in the locker room, told legendary head coach Joe Paterno what he had witnessed. Paterno himself then informed Tim Curley, the school’s athletic director and Gary Schultz, Penn State’s senior vice president for finance and business, rather than going to the authorities. Neither Curley nor Schultz, who are accused of lying under oath and dispute the testimony of Paterno and McQueary, reported the incident to law enforcement or the State Department of Public Welfare, even though Schultz’s duties included overseeing the campus police.
The accusations against Curley and Schultz reveal an undeniable repugnance. And while it is easy to understand why Paterno—who has since been fired—and McQueary would initially report the incident in the shower to their superiors, it is mind-boggling to think that they would remain silent when they realized that nothing was being done about it. Like the Catholic Church and other institutions beset by scandals, Penn State appears to have been plagued by a culture that valued loyalty over justice. Preserving the image of the institution—an economic juggernaut, whose vaunted football team pumped an estimated $59 million into the local economy every home game—seems to have been more important than protecting yet another child from an alleged serial predator.
What is also disturbing about the scandal, however, is the thought that every critic is forced to ask him or herself: what would I have done in Paterno’s or McQueary’s place? It’s easy to think that you would speak out immediately. And perhaps that’s true. Yet history shows us a darker side of humanity. “During the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide or the street beatings that happen in American neighborhoods,” writes New York Times columnist David Brooks, “the same pattern has emerged. Many people do not intervene.”
Much as we cannot find words that best convey the evil inherent in Sandusky’s alleged crimes, we also struggle to admit the potential of our own complicity—the fear and cowardice and indifference—that characterize the all-too-human capacity to stand in silence in the face of extreme wrongdoing. That, too, is indescribable.