Ask the Pediatrician | Behavior | Mental Health

One strike and you're out

I’ve been consumed reading the articles surrounding the tragedy of the Penn State sexual abuse scandal, and the recent report from Louis Freeh revealing that there was an intermittent but consistent awareness of Sandusky’s illicit contact with young boys on the part of the Penn State administration and coach Joe Paterno in particular is both distressing and revealing.

Sandusky was charming and successful. Good at his coaching job and easy to be around. He appeared to everyone around him to care deeply about young people and football and went out of his way to help others. In addition to all of this he was a child predator. A sex abuser. A man who couldn’t help himself from sexually abusing the boys in his life. Was he evil? Was he all bad?

The ability of Joe Paterno and the Penn State administration to hear the accusations, some first hand, others witnessed, and come to the conclusion that this man should be kept in the program speaks volumes. Some (including Freeh) would say it reflects a passion for a successful football program, but I highly doubt that was the primary reason Sandusky was retained. I suspect he was retained for much more personal, human reasons. I suspect he was retained because he was a really nice guy who was charming, whose wife and family everyone knew and liked and who everyone hoped (unrealistically) would shape up if threatened. I suspect that Paterno and others gave it serious thought and wanted to give the guy a second (or third or fourth) chance.

Maybe it was just too horrible to believe that this affable guy, so like everyone else on the coaching staff, was capable of this. Maybe the thought of their good friend and colleague as a child sex abuser was so incongruous with their vision of him that they rationalized things away. Maybe they thought he made a huge mistake but then justified it by thinking, haven’t we all have made huge mistakes? And Jerry Sandusky was most likely genuinely apologetic, promising to never get involved in this way again with a young boy.

As we read about the events that occurred we were all aghast; amazed that Paterno and the administration could look the other way. We all thought we would have fired him in a minute and pressed charges immediately. If confronted though in the moment, I suspect many would have been just as conflicted about what to do as the graduate assistant who stumbled upon Sandusky and the boy in the shower; stunned and paralyzed. The man we loved and respected was seen in this horrible, compromising position. Did we really see it right? Did we misinterpret? We told our superior but nothing really seemed to happen…. maybe we were wrong after all…. 

This willingness, and at times desire, to rationalize away unethical, immoral, or abusive behavior is strong. But rationalizing away child sex abuse highlights a basic lack of understanding of the fundamental difference between pedophiles and other ethically and morally challenged people: pedophiles, even with intense therapy, are almost never able to be rehabilitated. Let me repeat that. Pedophiles will remain powerfully driven to act on their sexual urges toward children forever despite intervention. Period. The idea that someone caught in a sexual act with a child is likely to have that be a one time thing is essentially zero. For that reason, no matter how wonderful and charming and great the person is in every other way, a zero tolerance approach needs to be employed for the safety of the children who may come in contact with a pedophile.

Maybe Joe Paterno didn’t know this. Maybe the Penn State administration didn’t either, but frankly they should have and with the first accusation someone should have done some serious investigation, not just of the events, but about the risk of recurrence, and Sandusky should have been removed from any contact with children. No second chances. No matter how charming he was. No matter how much you liked having dinner with him. No matter how much he meant to the football program. One strike and you’re out.

Dr. Molly O'Shea
Dr. Molly O'Shea is a board-certified pediatrician who cares for families in her practice Birmingham Pediatrics + Wellness Center. She will answer your questions on babies, children, adolescents and families and address common concerns.