By NICK CHILES
My apologies to Shakespeare, but there’s something rotten in State College, Pennsylvania. There are some powerful men walking around the campus of Penn State University today who should be sitting in jail cells. A shocking tale of child sexual abuse is roiling the campus, with a longtime assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky now facing 40 counts of sexual abuse of young boys, committed over a 15-year period. In addition, the school’s athletic director Tim Curley and the senior vice president for finance and business Gary Schultz were charged with perjury and failure to report to authorities what they knew of the allegations.
Iconic Penn State football coaching legend Joe Paterno was not charged, nor was university president Graham B. Spanier. But they both knew about the abuse since 2002, yet allowed the coach, who had retired in 1999, to not only continue abusing little boys for at least seven more years but also to retain an office in the campus football complex, one of his preferred locations to wage his campaign of molestation. Sandusky started a foundation in 1977 called Second Mile to help underprivileged kids—a perfect staging ground for a molester to pick his targets. He enticed the little boys—at least eight of them, according to the grand jury report, all under 13—with visits to football practices, games, even out of town bowl games. In other words, Penn State University was a virtual accomplice in this man’s reign of sexual terror. But instead of reacting with outrage when they learned of the abuse allegations, Paterno, Schultz, Curley and the president all passed the buck. And the abuse continued, all the way until 2009. It is a classic and disgusting case of powerful officials looking out for one of their own, without any regard for the wellbeing of the vulnerable and powerless little boys.
As parents, we must rely on a large network of responsible adults to get our children safely through childhood. There are teachers, coaches, tutors, other parents—even the most vigilant parents still have to hand our children over to other adults at some point if we have any interest in raising sociable, well-rounded individuals. We rely on a system of checks and balances—other watchful adults, other nosey children—as well as a great deal of trust. I can’t even imagine what the parents of those little boys must have felt when they discovered what had been done to their children and realized that the powerful men who ran this famous university had no interest in protecting their little boys. A graduate assistant, who was Paterno’s personal assistant, according to reports, actually witnessed Sandusky sexually assaulting a boy in the shower at the football complex in 2002. He actually saw it go down, which is extremely rare in these cases—they usually wind up becoming a case of a child making allegations and people accusing the child of fabrication. (A very shaken janitor also saw him performing oral sex on a boy in the shower in 2000 when the football team was away from campus for a game, according to the grand jury report.) After he saw the incident in 2002, the very next day the graduate assistant went to Paterno’s home to tell him what he saw. The famous coach—the winningest coach in college football history—told the athletic director Curley about the alleged abuse. The athletic director and the senior vice president—who actually oversees the campus police department!—met with the graduate assistant to get the story first-hand. They passed the information along to the university president. And what was the school’s official response? To tell Sandusky that he couldn’t bring any more of the kids from his foundation into the football building. In other words, go do your dirty work somewhere else. That was it. For many years afterward, they allowed the man free reign of the football facilities—and the abuse continued.
There are rumblings on the Penn State campus about why Paterno and Spanier, the president, are still sitting in their offices today, their jobs intact. I truly hope that the university community continues to push the issue. And I hope the parents are meeting with lawyers as we speak to prepare a nice, big, whopping lawsuit against Paterno, Spanier and Penn State University.
But as disgusting as it is, this case has repercussions far beyond the details of who knew what. These cases have a chilling, stunting effect on the entire network of foundations and mentors that have been created across the country to help disadvantaged kids. How many mothers are going to think twice now about signing her kid up for mentoring with a man who isn’t the father, or will hesitate to drop them off at the foundation or community center? We know the need for these programs is vast, and there aren’t nearly enough of them to meet the need. How many guys out there, perhaps moved to start some kind of foundation or community center to give back to needy kids, will wonder now if it’s worth it considering the scrutiny and the questions that will inevitably follow?
About a decade ago, I signed up to act as a Big Brother to a curious, energetic little boy in Newark. Over the course of several years, I brought the boy into our home and brought him on dozens of outings along with my son, who was about two years younger than him. Outings as exciting as professional basketball games and as simple as a game of catch in the park. I could tell the boy really looked forward to the time we spent together—as did I. I was pleased to be able to have even a small impact on his life. And my son was very grateful to have something close to an older brother. It was a win-win all around. But I sometimes felt that my efforts were met with a certain amount of suspicion among members of the boy’s family. Not necessarily his mother, but other family members. I could see it on their faces when I went to pick him up. What was my deal? Why would I want to spend so much time with the boy and get nothing in return?
Other men I’ve spoken to over the years who have also done this type of mentoring work have mentioned the suspicions that they must work hard to overcome. The suspicions are understandable—if I’m handing my child over to you, I need to make sure your intentions are pure and honorable.
But when a story like this one at Penn State breaks, and there is such a severe lack of accountability and disregard for the law among these powerful men, it deepens suspicions all across America. It increases the doubt, makes mothers hesitate. It makes potential mentors pull back. The result is that many little boys and girls will miss out on a wonderful and possibly life-changing experience. And so will their would-be mentors.
Nick Chiles, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is the author of eight books, including the New York Times bestselling tome “The Blueprint: A Plan for Living Above Life’s Storms,” co-written with gospel legend Kirk Franklin. Nick also writes for several publications including Essence, where he frequently pens stories about fatherhood and manhood.