Sunday, November 27, 2011


Joe Paterno's reputation as a squeaky clean football coach took a hit with the mess at Penn State over the allegations of sexual abuse against Jerry Sandusky. There seems to be a great deal of indignation over what Paterno didn't do and what the complainers think they would have done.

As a prosecutor with over 20 years of intense experience investigating and prosecuting child sex abuse allegations, I think I have some insight into the situation. I have seen all sorts of reactions from people who were given reason to suspect that close associates may have been involved in child sex abuse. The least frequent reaction from people finding themselves in such a situation was to march directly to the police and report the matter. The most frequent reaction was some variation of the ostrich who stuck his head in the sand.

I'm not excusing what Paterno did, I'm just pointing out that he did what most people confronted with the situation would have done. There are any number of reasons that people react this way instead of doing what everybody thinks they would do if they were confronted with the situation. One, but definitely not the only, reason is that the non-reporter knows and has affection for the suspected abuser and cannot bring himself to believe that the suspect could be capable of such an act. The non-reporter thinks either that it didn't happen or that it was a one-time aberration which will never happen again. As the great American philosopher Mark Twain once said, "Denial is not just a river in Egypt."

Child molesters seldom look like the pervert from Central Casting. They usually look and act normal, and they have a knack for instilling trust in those around them. In other words, they are almost undetectable until after they have struck. And they strike many times before they fall under suspicion. And they fall under suspicion many times before they are suspected by someone who doesn't sail on "Denial."And tragic situations like the one at Penn State will continue to occur until Judgment Day. My wife says I am overly cynical, but that is an occupational hazard for prosecutors.

We cannot prevent child abuse from occurring, but we can minimize it by exercising constant vigilance, immediately reporting situations when they come to our attention, and cooperating with the authorities in the resulting prosecutions.