Saturday, July 28, 2012

Joe Paterno, Penn State and the sexual abuse scandal

 The news from Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) has been riveting. For those who have not been following this story closely, a onetime football coach, Jerry Sandusky, has been convicted of molesting young boys in the showers and locker rooms of the university’s gymnasium facilities. One glaring and controversial issue is why university officials, including the famed head-football coach Joe Paterno, now deceased, as well as the President of the University, Graham Spanier, withheld the information they had about Sandusky’s crimes from as early as 1998, thus exposing more boys to potential harm.

The NCAA, the association that oversees collegiate sports, imposed extraordinarily heavy penalties on the university for this lapse. They fined Penn State $60 million, instituted a four-year ban on bowl game appearances, took away scholarships, and forced the university to forfeit victories going back to 1998. Many observers regarded the penalty, particularly its last part, as too severe. Why deprive all past football players of the record of their wins because a single coach had molested children. Moreover, as one newspaper editorial suggested, the courts had only charged two of the actors, a coach, Tim Curley and an assistant vice president, Gary Schultz, with endangering a child by failing to report. They had not yet convicted them. Could the NCAA act as the judge and the executioner before the courts established guilt or innocence? 

There were other anomalies. As one reporter noted, “Many officials in law enforcement and child-welfare organizations can’t name instances of charges being brought against individuals who failed to report a crime relating to child abuse.” Why were Curley’s and Schultz’s failures treated with such unusual severity? Finally, Paterno was a university hero. He had built the football team into a national powerhouse, had catapulted the university into the ranks of great institutions, and had helped raise millions of dollars for its academic programs.  In 2001 the university had in fact erected a statue of him in his honor, cast in bronze. But after Sandusky's crimes were revealed, the university pulled down the statute, in a gesture that was one step away from burning him in effigy. The king was dead and it seemed, deservedly so.  Paterno in fact had actually died some six months before.

In addition, some observers were puzzled by what they interpreted to be the NCAA’s “holier than thou” stance. The NCAA imposed its penalty in the context of a particular narrative. As the narrative goes, the reason that top Penn State officials had taken no action, was that they were protecting the football program from embarrassment, and perhaps disgrace. This showed, the NCAA suggested, that the football program was too revered, that people acted as if football were more important than such values as integrity and decency, values core to university life. Yet, as many observers also noted, the NCAA as a vehicle of the universities themselves, had done more than any other body to elevate the role of college sports as universities’ moneymaker.

The proximate stimulant for the NCAA's decision was the Freeh report, a report commissioned by the University’s board of trustees and written by Louis Freeh, an ex-FBI director. Yet a careful reading of the report reveals considerable ambiguities. The report highlights two incidents, the first in 1998 and the second in 2002. In the first incident, a boy’s mother told university officials, as well as the local police, that Sandusky had showered with her son in a university locker room. The police referred the case to the Department of Public Welfare (DPW) whose expert, John Seasock, found that Sandusky was not in fact a pedophile. In addition, the district attorney decided that there was insufficient evidence to charge Sandusky with a crime.  Moreover, there is a very little evidence in the Freeh report about Paterno's involvement in the events surrounding this first incident. There are simply two emails in which others reference the “coach.” Paterno’s family insists that he had no knowledge of the first event. The Freeh report provides very limited and only indirect evidence that he did.  Indeed, it notes that, “After Curley's initial updates to Paterno,” [inferred from emails written by Curley to Schultz- LH], “the available record is not clear as to how the conclusion of the Sandusky investigation was conveyed to Paterno.”

The second incident in 2002 was more complicated. It is important to note that it took place when Sandusky was no longer a university employee, but did have access to the sports facilities. A graduate student, Michael McQueary, saw Sandusky and a boy, through their reflections in a mirror, in a shower room. They were engaged in what appeared to be sexual activity. Sandusky had his arms around the boy’s waist and the boy, with his back to Sandusky, had his hands pressed against the wall. McQueary did not see "insertion" nor did he observe any signs or sounds suggesting coercion. When McQueary slammed a locker door to make noise, Sandusky and the boy separated and looked directly at McQueary, who then left the locker room.  

McQueary, on the advice of his father reported the incident to Paterno, but as one reporter notes, “out of respect for Paterno, he did not reveal the details of what he saw.” He did not use the terms “sodomy” or “anal intercourse,” even though he believed intercourse had occurred. Paterno told him, “You’ve done the right thing. I know it is probably tough for you to come here and tell me this, but you've done the absolutely right thing.” When McQueary later described what he saw to Curley and Schultz, “He again refrained from describing all of the lurid details.”

As the reference to McQueary’s less than full description suggests, what happened next, is that the story of what he saw, was transformed from one about intercourse to one about wrestling, horseplay and fondling. The most important question is whether or not this transformation was motivated, to cover up what happened, or was the result of the discomfort, or more strongly the disgust people felt in considering the scene McQueary described. Clearly, McQueary felt the details were as he notes “lurid,” and that he omitted them to protect his listeners. When Schultz testified to the grand jury he remembered McQueary describing, “some kind of wrestling around and maybe Jerry might have grabbed the boy’s genitals.” Paterno remembered McQueary as describing that Sandusky, “Had fondled the boy.” 

One possible source of discomfort, and what may have made the scene lurid to McQueary, was that that he was observing a homosexual act. Sociologists refer to the culture of male sports as “homosocial.” This means that athletes touch each other a lot to express both affection and aggression, but that at the same time this touching, wrestling and embracing must reinforce a strong taboo against expressing sexual desire, even if desire is stimulated. The touching signifies, that in this case, touching does not signify, desire.  This is a tricky boundary and it is no accident that a predator such as Sandusky would use a sports setting to satisfy his sexual compulsions. Indeed, Schultz described Sandusky as a physical person. “He always touched folks, young and old during conversations. He frequently put friends in headlocks, slapped them on the back, grabbed arms and other body parts, in physical displays of affection.”

Social taboos operate by promoting disgust, for example, a religious Jew or Muslim finds pork disgusting, and it is likely that McQueary’s story stimulated a similar disgust.  One hypothesis is that the disgust, and the anxiety this feeling created, helped transform the story from one of sexual penetration into one of wrestling, horseplay and at the most, some fondling.

As the Freeh report suggests, Paterno’s involvement in this second incident was limited, after he told Curley and Schultz what McQuery had reported. The latter two met twice with Sandusky who denied he was engaged in sexual activity. Influenced partly by the 1998 expert’s report, Sandusky’s denials, their view of the event as closer to horseplay than to intercourse, and perhaps by the fact that Sandusky was no longer an employee, they did not report this event to the police. Instead, they forbad Sandusky from bringing boys into the Sports facilities in the future. They also reported McQueary’s story to the board chair of Second Mile, an organization Sandusky helped found, which gave opportunities to disadvantaged and at risk children. He had remained active in Second Mile after his retirement from Penn State.  

The Freeh report castigates Penn state officials for not recognizing, that by failing to report a predator to the police, they were putting boys in danger. But many adults do not really understand the possible psychological impacts of sexual relationships between adults and children. Long ago the famous psychoanalyst Sandor Ferenczi described sexual relationships between adults and children as shaped by the “confusion of tongues.” In this confusion,  adults assume that a child’s ignorance protects him from experiencing sexual gestures as in fact sexual. This same confusion leads the adult to confuse the child’s submissiveness as a token of the child’s love. Moreover, the famous “Rind report,” (, a controversial “meta-analysis” of 59 studies of the impact of sexual abuse on children, which passed the test of peer review, noted that the impact of sexual abuse on children is in fact variable.  Girls suffer more than boys, some children find the experience positive, and the degree of coercion matters. The authors of the study concluded that the legal term, “child sexual abuse” was far too imprecise. Moreover, Pennsylvania state law mandates that certain professionals, such as teachers, physicians, social workers, child-care workers and camp counselors, are required to report an incident of child abuse. College level coaches are not explicitly mentioned in the law, and it is highly unlikely that Penn State officials ever considered themselves to be “mandatory reporters.”  By the same token, it is highly unlikely that they had any formal training on what to observe and how to report. Indeed, these last two facts may very well lead to Schultz’s and Curley’s acquittal on this charge.

There is the old saying, “There but for the grace of God go I.” It represents folklore’s counsel that we need to mitigate our tendencies to judge the wrongdoing of others by acknowledging our own potential for wrongdoing. This counsel also suggests that we judge each other too harshly when we fail to acknowledge the likelihood that we too could have made the wrong decision. Many people responded with disgust to the story of Penn State’s failures to stop Sandusky, but this disgust may protect them from acknowledging their own potential vulnerability, their own penchant for not reporting and sending a colleague to jail based on ambiguous evidence. 

Thinking organizationally, it is proper to hold leaders accountable for violations of the law, or failures of judgment. But to prevent future failures we should also understand the failure as the result of a human process, in which culture and group dynamics, also play a role. This is now the common wisdom for understanding why industrial accidents happen, or why patients are harmed in hospitals. Decisions makers are accountable, but they make decisions in a context they don't control. 

The Freeh report recommended that Penn State implement improvements to prevent future child abuse, such as appointing an ethics officer, improving background checks of prospective hires, and appointing a chief compliance officer. The problem with these suggestions, however commonsensical they may be, is that they paint the picture of organizations as machines without regard to the human processes of judgment, feelings and social ties that undergird them. The latter are the true engines of success as well as failure. One hypothesis is that even if  the Freeh report’s recommendations had been implemented prior to Sandusky’s crimes, the psychological and cultural issues that shaped peoples’ responses, would have remained the same.

We face one last question. In light of these ambiguities and complexities, what explains the rage against Paterno, as if he rather than Sandusky were the sexual abuser, so much so that we had to topple his statue? What gave the NCAA license to judge the culture of athletics at Penn State as lacking, when it was itself partly responsible for “big time football’s” corruption of academia? One is tempted to conclude, following the work of my colleague Howard Schwartz, that we take pleasure in what psychoanalysts call the symbolic, “killing of the father.” (see, Society against itself: Political Correctness and Organizational Destruction, Perhaps, Paterno, even though his guilt was partial, had become the symbol of the corrupt father whose claim on resources and our attention results entirely from his abusiveness, rather from his achievements. 

There is in the air, a picture of society built on this kind of corruption. This picture may help us explain to ourselves why our own accomplishments may be limited, while others’ appear extraordinary.  The latter’s claims, from this point of view, are illegitimate, because they have stolen our resources and our talents.  In that sense, killing the father expresses and relieves us of our envy. There is of course corruption in society, and as the history of the recent financial crisis suggests, we have decision makers and business leaders who are undoubtedly guilty of malfeasance. But we are at risk of undermining our society’s accomplishments, of being self-destructive, if that is all we see.


  1. Larry,

    I like this a lot. I agree that the place to look is the NCAA. I don't know much about it, but I do know that they have imposed name changes on teams that had Indian names, even in the absence of any objection from Indian tribes. I think I remember other ventures into political correctness, but I don't recall what. These things tend to be of a piece, though.


  2. Larry, a trauma theorist I like describes trauma as exposure to too much reality. I think this is relevant here. McQueary protected his listeners and himself from exposing his experience and then the question arises as to what can leaders do when they are protected from the reality of the situation - another parallel to the financial crisis. I have worked for many years in child sexual abuse and both scientifically and politically think your inclusion of the Rind report although referenced as controversial was an incredibly poor decision. The reality of child sexual abuse is that there are very very few generalisaitons and to include the few you have helps promote the myths around impact, discourage people from disclosing and dissolve societal responsibility in my view. What does mediate the impact of child sexual abuse is presence of a supportive ally and how the disclosure is received. What is of note here is that there is little reference to the victims of child sexual abuse in this whole discourse as if the victims and their stories cannot be tolerated beyond a justification for anger directed towards the institution. Even then, it is simply their existence rather than their narrative that is used.

    The impression that McQueady had to defend himself against what he saw in his symbolisation of what he saw as 'fondling' shows the level of responsibility he was carrying in relation to the imparting of that knowledge which is mediated by the culture of the organisation. Questions for me are did nobody help him offer a full account of what he saw? Did nobody ask him clarifying questions or was there enough selective data provided to reconfirn the impression of Sandusky as a tactile guy. I would hazard a guess that if Paterno lived in a culture more connected to child protection and heard the full extent of what was observed a different course of action may have been taken. It is often easier to assume that large organisations with good well earned reputations are only powerful and narcissistic and will take any course to self protect. I think what is harder to tolerate is when organisations are not strong enough to tolerate this type of information being shared.

    The level of punishment of Paterno and the college is astounding. I would argue though the culture of the organisation should have been more available to hear about child abuse and then the individuals in that organisation would have been authorised to act more explicitly.

    Thanks for the article Harry, I enjoy your writing.


  3. Thanks for your comments. I included the Rind report as a way of giving an account of how and why popular culture may consider the sexual relations between adults and children with some ambivalence. Non professionals such as Paterno, who have no training or education in these matters may be in tune with this ambivalence. I am struck by your statement that one can make no generalizations about the impact on children of sexual relations between adults and children, which would seem to undergird the confusion about it in popular culture. What does interest me greatly is the reasons for, as you note, the "astounding" level of punishment to which Paterno and the institution as a whole has been subjected. As my colleague Dr. Laszlo Petrovics reports, a conference on child abuse had been scheduled to take place at Penn state in October and that "Many feel that the October Conference on Child Abuse by Penn State
    should be paid for by the University but not hosted there."

    1. Applaud Derek’s expertness in citing that little generalizations can be drawn from the impact of such trauma, and that what facilitates disclosure of „the impact of child sexual abuse is presence of a supportive ally and how the disclosure is received.” Our group –at the time called the Foundation for Psychoeducation was among the first to address for the Magyar Soros Foundation, mandated to deal with human rights post-Communism, that it was important to enlist a team of mental health professionals next to the legal staff interviewing victims.

      To highlight the knee-jerk reaction to inner family violence –which among alcoholic families included sexual violence –the entire problem was so acutely framed along lines of moral aberrance, and gender stereotype that males volunteers were actually banned from participation. Thus, major investment of funds calcified along the still-prevalent, and highly inefficient policy, of fight-flight: whereby even larger, five or six family members are encouraged to take shelter in some undisclosed facility, while lawyers prepare the case against the abuser left alone in the home. The over-riding aim remains to punish, not to heal. This general policy may soon change as officials are made aware of the wastage from indirect costs.

      Larry provided useful further information about this case in the region of PennState, Happy Valley, which clarified the spill-over to the unusual NCAA sanctions against the entire University body. Again, Derek’s views toward facilitating disclosure are key. Not trained in requirements for mandatory disclosure, those administrators who did report to the police might be spared legal redress. But what of the police, and DA’s office, who are experts? What prevented their follow through in the careful manners Derek suggests? Were they assured by PennState bundlers, “We’ll take care of this in-house?” Simply keeping years’-long reports on Sandusky”s activities and assuring his physical distance from the campus, does not sit well, and may safeguard the school’s complicity, but may also implicate the local DA in not protecting youth across the decade of subsequent abuse. The on-campus, off-campus argument seems mute, and also may reflect lack of training in this area.

      Although one hopes that such a high profile case may have positive ramifications nationwide, I am afraid that journalism chose to sensationalize, and may have contributed to misinformation that injured PennState and likely many in Happy Valley. For one, the local newspaper was quickly awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the breaking story. Earlier, during Occupy Wall Street high profile contrast had been drawn between PennState stereotyped in “jock-like apathy” and the reactions of students at Berkeley, given the moral upper ground. The role of the media in the present highly emotional case would seem useful to examine in the October Conference on Child Abuse at Penn State –in both fueling scapegoating, as well as adding to useful public awareness in the area of abuse. Although several victims of abuse of celebrity status will present, the usefulness of ISPSO experts in uses/abuses of authority with vulnerable groups of children/elderly also deserves attention as they have knowledge in this area.

    2. Hi Larry and Laszlo,

      I tried to view the webpage that you sent about the conference and my browser kept crashing when it was loading - not sure of the meaning of that! I have met and heard both David and Lucy talk and they are good speakers and there is also scope for other voices at the conference which sounds like it should be good - might be interesting to hear from some non-celebrities who have experienced abuse for balance. My sense of the conference being paid for by Penn and not in Penn is that the desire for rehabilitation is not there yet or at least its important to watch Penn swing for a bit more before it is allowed to improve things. No doubt Penn is under pressure to act and the conference seems like a logical first step. I fully agree with your point Laszlo about uses/abuses of authority - what happens to systems when dependency is serially betrayed in both young and old?

      We have had too many versions of Penn State in Ireland - the church, the child institutions, the swimming coaches etc. I used to believe that the abuse of children in institutional settings was fuelled by post colonisation thinking - these children were put in these institutions as they represented the shame of our colonial past for society and then they were acted upon by religious people on behalf of society. Now I am not so sure based on the reports of child sexual abuse in many other countries. I guess it could still be true for the Irish dynamic. With regard to Penn, I wonder what the currency might have been to allow the abuse to happen in the first place and how much of that currency is used in non-abusive situations. I think this is where the intervention should focus.

      I get the ambivalence held broadly about adult child sexual contact but I find it hard to tolerate as I have yet to meet a child who has the psychological capacity to consent. While I am absolutely open to meeting authentically resilient children who have been abused it has not been my general experience and in some cases the child appears to be doing well until the parents’ devastation is transmitted to the child. How we define negative or positive impact of experiences is important to agree when assessing impact. What is accepted as 'evidence' bears little relation to experience in purely empirical studies.

      It would be great to see ISPSO take on child sexual abuse at an organisational level. Our organisational dynamics are interesting both internally where we are on the journey from shame processors to a focus on the development of the child and externally where the amount of enclaves and lack of capacity for joint work is pointed.

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