The power of good fathers: It was no coincidence that Jerry Sandusky preyed on fatherless boys
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Happy Father's Day to all the men who've loved, supported and protected their children, ensuring that they are never so desperate to belong somewhere that they mistake a pedophile for a father figure; never so starved for attention that they tolerate sexual abuse in exchange for it; never so scared and vulnerable that they keep the secret locked up inside them into adulthood.
This is how all eight of the young men who testified last week against Jerry Sandusky portrayed their younger selves. They were as young as 8 years old, most without fathers, from poor households where resources and nurturing were in short supply, when the former Penn State assistant football coach and alleged child rapist took an "interest" in them.
These were not hit-and-run incidents that the witnesses described, but close relationships that went on for years, making them all the more sinister.
It takes nothing away from single mothers who may have done all they could for their children to note that a caring, involved father would have stood as a bulwark against such exploitation.
A boy who has a good relationship with his dad doesn't want or need a Jerry Sandusky in his life. A father paying attention doesn't let such a figure draw his kid into such a sick and twisted web.
So it's no accident that the defendant targeted fatherless children. He knew they were easy targets who could be lured by gifts and attention, then held by fear of losing that sense of being "special" to someone important.
Where are the dads of these boys today? Do they know what happened to their sons? Do they care? Will they show up with their hands out if the inevitable civil suits lead to financial damages?
Their absence stands in contrast to the story of the young father in Shiner, Texas, who a few days ago discovered his 5-year-old daughter being sexually assaulted by a family acquaintance and beat the man to death. Friends and family said he'd never been a violent person, and that he did what any father would do in the circumstances. That may or may not be true, but the Sandusky case reminds us that a father can't protect his child if he's not in the picture.
Coming and going from the courtroom, Mr. Sandusky seemed to be in a different world than the rest of us, smiling a toothy, strangely dissociated grin as if headed for a party. As a colleague asked, "Is he watching the same trial that I'm watching?"
Prosecutors say the defendant found his prey through his youth charity, Second Mile, which earned him near-saintly status in the community while providing an ample supply of victims; that he groomed the boys with gifts, taking them to football games at home and out of town, finding excuses to shower with them, inviting them for overnights at his home, threatening to cut them out if they balked.
The young men described the same pattern, saying that Mr. Sandusky put his hand on their thighs while driving, played slapping and tickling games with them, lathered them up in the Penn State showers, performed oral sex and/or demanded it in return; that he blew on their stomachs, climbed atop them, pushed them against a shower wall and, in some cases, performed anal rape.
Why didn't they report the abuse?
"I'm loving everything [else] that I'm getting," one of them said.
"He's an important guy," said another. "Everybody knows him. ... Nobody's going to believe kids."
Indeed, a local wrestling coach who found Mr. Sandusky in suspicious circumstances with a boy said he couldn't believe such a great guy would do anything wrong. "I thought to myself, 'It's Jerry Sandusky. He's a saint,' " said Joseph Miller of Central Mountain School District. "I quickly dismissed it from my mind. Jerry would never do anything inappropriate."
A similar disconnect must have overtaken Mike McQueary, the former Penn State assistant football coach who testified that he saw Mr. Sandusky sodomizing a boy in the shower but didn't break it up or call police to report the crime. Instead, he told head coach and football god Joe Paterno, omitting the gory details out of "respect" for the older man. Despite what many consider a dereliction of duty, Mr. McQueary was a strong, unwavering witness against the defendant.
Many of the reported assaults took place in Mr. Sandusky's house while his wife, Dottie, was at home. Apparently, she never intervened to protect the boys her husband was abusing right under her roof. A few witnesses said she'd knocked on a door and asked what was going on, but then left. One said he screamed for help in the basement but that no one heard because the room was soundproof.
Was Mrs. Sandusky too afraid of her husband to take any action? Did she look the other way to maintain her marriage, community standing and means of support? Did she fear he had done the same things to their six adopted children and find the prospect too horrifying to contemplate?
For that matter, were any of Mr. Sandusky's children victimized as well? Did they suspect what was going on but feared the consequences of speaking up?
The defense will do its best to discredit the witnesses. But given their riveting, emotional and damning testimony, it's going to take more than accusing them of looking for a big payoff.
One wonders what kind of Father's Day celebration Mr. Sandusky will be having today. As for the dads out there who do what dads are supposed to do, kudos to all of you. If you ever doubt your importance to your family, think of this trial and you'll know better.
First Published June 17, 2012 12:00 am