The Dynamics of Power in the Penn State Sex Abuse Scandal

As the media attention over the Penn State sex abuse scandal explodes, I am reminded of the decades-long scandal engulfing the Catholic Church and the world-wide scandal in the Boy Scouting programs (including over 2,000 cases in the BSA alone).  Abuse of minors by men in positions of power and covered up for decades.  The good old boy networks at work protecting each other, in these cases, at the expense of innocent young children.

After all of the attention that this crime has received over the years, it amazes me that perpetrators continue to be so arrogant and ignorant enough to believe that they can continue to get away with this behavior often engaging in it in nearly public almost blatant ways.

To get a full picture of the current Penn State scandal, it’s worth the time to read the Grand Jury Indictment.  This 23-page document details how the perpetrator not only built a program for troubled youth that fed his pedophilia, but how he groomed, seduced, and sexually abused eight of his victims.  Each of the cases is eerily similar, but it’s worth noting, if you read the victim’s cases in chronological order, how the grooming and seducing became more refined over time.

There is a significant amount of outrage over the entire situation.  Outrage that a legendary coach’s legacy is tarnished and that he was ousted in summary fashion.  Outrage that a district attorney (who disappeared in 2005 and was recently declared dead) failed to prosecute.  Outrage that the graduate assistant, who witnessed one of the child rapes, has not been fired.  Outrage at the media for reporting about the scandal.

Where, oh where, is the outrage for the victims?

The legendary coach who, by all accounts, was the most powerful person on the Penn State campus, learned of Victim 2 in 2002 when the incident was reported to him by a graduate assistant.  By 2002, the perpetrator had already been involved in other incidents of this nature of which, we can safely assume, the head coach was aware.

This is where the dynamics of power come into play.  The graduate assistant is working in the department of the most powerful man on campus, the legendary football coach, a man revered by all who has brought enormous amounts of prestige and money to the school.  The perpetrator is another powerful man on campus and a good friend of the football coach.  The graduate assistant witnesses, unexpectedly, the rape of a very young child by the perpetrator in the football team showers.  Nothing can prepare one for this.  The graduate assistant did nothing to stop the attack, was extremely upset and distraught and immediately called his father who advised him to go the head coach and report the incident.  Which he did.

The head coach reports the incident to his superior.  The graduate assistant is interviewed by the head coach’s superiors and eventually told that it has been resolved.

Should he have done more to stop the act?  Absolutely.  Do I understand that he probably thought he did all that he could?  Yes.

The head coach, on the other hand, in a position of great power and with knowledge of prior improper activities, gets less of a pass from me.

The incident involving Victim 6, which occurred prior to Victim 2, was reported by the victim’s mother to the University Police.  The Centre County District Attorney (the man who disappeared and was recently declared dead) and police became involved.  In spite of an investigation that involved documentation of calls to the perpetrator where he admitted to improper activity, the case was never pursued or prosecuted.  The mother and child, who came to the attention of the perpetrator through the disadvantaged youth program, cooperated, did the right thing by reporting the incident, and were left basically empty handed.  Not prosecuted because the district attorney felt that he needed a totally solid case with airtight evidence before prosecuting high profile perpetrators.  Power at play.

In 2000, a newly employed, temporary janitor walked in on the perpetrator violating another young boy, Victim 8.  Similar to the case of the graduate assistant, this man was not prepared for what he saw.  He did nothing to stop the attack, but went to his superior and reported it.  The janitor was a Korean war veteran and reported that what he saw was more horrible than anything he witnessed during the war.  He was so distraught that his superior and fellow workers feared he was going to have a heart attack.  Several of the janitorial staff became aware of the incident.  All but one were newer employees.  They feared they would lose their jobs.  A report of the incident was never made beyond the superior in the department.  Power at play.

It took until 2008, when a high school vice principal and assistant coach walked in on the perpetrator involved in inappropriate activity with Victim 8, another child from the disadvantaged youth program.  The vice principal and school took immediate and proper action, as mandatory reporters, to report the perpetrator, ban him from their schools and programs.  It is only then that everything started to unravel for the perpetrator.  After at least 15 years of improper activities with very young boys.  Fifteen years of improper activities of which many were aware.

The final thing about power is this.  The Athletic Director and the SVP of Finance and Business have been indicted along with the perpetrator.  They are being accused of making false statements and failing to follow mandatory reporting statutes.  They say that they were unaware of the exact nature of the incident – that the graduate assistant did not share the specifics of the child rape with them.  The Grand Jury found the “graduate assistant’s testimony to be extremely credible.”  The Grand Jury found that “portions of the testimony of . . . are not credible.”  A classic case of those in power, pleading ignorance and throwing someone at a lower level under the bus.  It’s no wonder that people are often afraid to come forward.  Often when they do either nothing happens or they are vilified or they risk losing their jobs or being otherwise blackballed.

The head coach, the athletic director, the SVP, and the president of the university were all mandatory reporters.  None of them reported any of the incidents of which they were aware either to child protection authorities or to the police.  Was the graduate assistant also obligated as a mandatory reporter?  I am unsure on that.  But clearly, the men in positions of power dropped the ball big time.  While the head coach did report the incident to his superior, he did not pass the moral test of using his position of power to do more to protect innocent young boys.  Rather, he chose to protect a long-time friend and high profile member of the university community.

The perpetrator’s retirement agreement (he retired in 1999) included continued access to the athletic complex and games.  This in spite of the incident in 1998 involving Victim 6 which occurred in the athletic complex and of which we can assume they all were aware.  It’s hard for me to fathom that most of the rest of the athletic staff, many of whom are long-term employees, were not at least generally aware of the situation with this perpetrator.

The Grand Jury investigation has been going on for quite some time.  I am shocked that it was  only when the indictments were handed down a week or so ago, that the larger community became aware of them.

What happens now?  I hope that the university cleans house.  I hope that future education campaigns include mechanisms that ameliorate the impact relationships of power have over the ability of anyone to be able to feel safe to stop and report inappropriate activity.

We must all be willing to “shatter the silence” and feel free to step forward to protect victims of abuse, violence, and harassment.  Especially the most vulnerable among us – children, the disabled, the disadvantaged, and the elderly.

The economics of power trumping the safety of innocent, young children.  I am outraged on behalf of the victims, these very young boys, who were seduced into inappropriate sexual activity, child rape and sodomy, by a pervert and a pedophile.  I could care less about a tarnished legacy, lapses in judgment, or loss of jobs by those in power who should have known better and who should have done more.

Note: I am not a big sports fan much less a college football sports fan, but I’ve been reading the opinion pieces on the Penn State scandal including the ones written by sports journalists.  This one, by sportwriter Greg Couch, was posted on Saturday, November 12, 2011, and struck a chord with me as he stated in a slightly different way what I was trying to say.  Read his post here.  I care passionately about women’s and children’s issues, and that is why I felt the need to post about this current (and sadly I’m sure not the last) sexual abuse scandal.

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4 Responses to The Dynamics of Power in the Penn State Sex Abuse Scandal

  1. Kim Vincenc says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more. Disgusted and angry are just two words that come to mind. I do not understand why the student body isn’t outraged as well. Lack of life experience comes to mind.

    • Mama says:

      I think the Penn State community is, understandably, shocked, and as they come to grips with all of this news, they are coming around to outrage for the victims. It’s my hope that the now former head coach comes out with everything that he knows. He might just save his legacy. When athletics becomes so powerful, more powerful, than the educational administration then something is out of whack. And, yes, I know that the football program had one of the highest rates of academic success in the nation. At the end of the day, you need to graduate students that are not only successful at academics and athletics, but of high moral character as well. And high moral character starts at the top.

  2. Pingback: Justice For Abused Children | Mama's Empty Nest

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