Monday, November 14, 2011

The Conspiracy of Silence: Penn State and Child Sexual Abuse

The recently revealed allegations of sexual abuse against former Penn State football coach, Jerry Sandusky, and the revelations that many were privy to this information but did nothing, has rocked the college football world and the entire country.

Concerns about Jerry Sandusky were apparently raised as far back as 1995 by the biological mother of a troubled teenage boy that Jerry Sandusky was fostering and would later adopt, although it is not clear whether the concerns at the time were sexual in nature.

Three years later, in 1998, however, a then 11-year-old boy reported to the police that Sandusky had showered naked with him. Another boy was apparently in the shower at the time. The police apparently set up a sting and they obtained what is described as a telephone 'confession' by Sandusky to the boy's mother. Despite this, the district attorney declined to prosecute and the Child Protection agency investigating the complaints at the time also felt they could not substantiate the claims.

Two years later, in 2000, a group of janitors allegedly observed Sandusky sexually abusing two other young boys separately. They testified to the grand jury that they apparently discussed between them how to report the incident at the time, although there appears to be no record of that report.

Two years later, in 2002, the then Graduate Assistant Coach, Mike McQueary alleged that he observed Sandusky sodomizing a boy who appeared to be around 10 years old. He allegedly reported the incident the next day to Penn State coach Joe Paterno, who then reported something to the Athletic Director and to the then university Vice President, who then apparently reported something to the then university President, Graham Spanier. What was reported from one level to the next remains in question, although it has been suggested that as reported allegations moved from one level to another, they became more and more minimized so as to ultimately allow the university to determine that the incident was insignificant. No action was taken. A police report was never filed and Sandusky was merely asked not to bring kids into the locker room. At the same time, the president of The Second Mile charity founded by Sandusky to aid troubled kids was also informed of the concern about Sandusky and they claim that they conducted an internal review and found no wrongdoing.

In late 2008, a high school freshman boy at a school where Sandusky was a volunteer coach eventually disclosed to his school principal and mother that Sandusky had been sexually abusing him. A grand jury convened in 2009 to investigate the charges. They have identified eight alleged victims to date, all of whom appear to have some connection to Sandusky's The Second Mile charity.
Since his arrest, Sandusky has been freed on $100,000 unsecured bail by a judge who had been a volunteer to his Second Mile charity.

When one lays out this sequence of events, they are shocking. How is it possible that, despite these numerous incidents, Sandusky has appeared unrestrained from engaging in this pattern of concerning behavior?

Sandusky's behavior is very typical of many child predators. Child sexual predators often engage a technique called 'grooming' as part of their process of victimization. 'Grooming' refers to actions deliberately undertaken with the aim of befriending a child in order to lower the child's sexual inhibitions or establish an intimate friendship in preparation for the eventual introduction of sexual activities with the child. The act of grooming a child sexually may include activities that are both legal and illegal. At the outset, the groomer aims to lower the child’s inhibitions about non-sexual inappropriate behaviors by encouraging, permitting or covering up the breaking of rules. For example, the groomer may permit the child to secretly violate a rule set by a parent. In so doing, the groomer develops a “secret alliance” with the child, which then can be later exploited. Anna C. Salter, Ph.D., a well-respected expert psychologist in the study of sexual predators suggests, "The establishment (and eventual betrayal) of affection and trust occupies a central role in the child molester's interactions with children.... The grooming process often seems similar from offender to offender, largely because it takes little to discover that emotional seduction is the most effective way to manipulate children."

Grooming begins when the predator chooses a target area. The predator may visit places where children are likely to go: schools, shopping malls, playgrounds, and parks. They may work or volunteer at businesses or organizations that cater to children. Other predators strike up relationships with adults who have children in the home. For them, single parent families may make particularly good targets. In establishing a career as a coach, centered around young children, and in particular young boys, Sandusky created a setting in which he could have ready access to potential victims.

Victim selection and recruitment are next. Although it is possible that any child may potentially be victimized, not surprisingly, predators often target children with obvious vulnerabilities. A child who feels unloved and unpopular will soak up adult attention like a sponge and predators often hone in on these children. Children with family problems, who spend time alone and unsupervised, who lack confidence and self-esteem, and who are isolated from their peers are all likely targets. In this case, Sandusky established an entire organization in which he could have a ready supply of vulnerable young people. His charity, The Second Mile, was specifically focused on the vulnerable and emotionally troubled young child who would be more likely longing for special attention, but who also might not be seen as credible should allegations surface.

It thus seems clear how Sandusky may have engaged in specific grooming behaviors and organized his life around obtaining victims to satisfy his disturbed desires. However, it should be equally clear that Sandusky would not have been able to continue these alleged abuses if those who came to know or suspect about them had done more.

How it is that those around Sandusky were able to witness all that they did and yet fail to act to stop him? How did so many ultimately engage in a conspiracy of silence?

To understand this, one must understand the powerful social psychological factors that impact behavioral outcomes. One such factor is cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is defined as the discomfort that is experienced when a person holds conflicting ideas or beliefs simultaneously. The theory proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce tension, and thus to reduce cognitive dissonance. They achieve this by changing their attitudes, beliefs or actions in the face of experiences that challenge their strongly held belief or attitude. However, to do so, they may engage in behaviors such as justifying, blaming and denying.

Social psychologist Leon Festinger first introduced the idea of cognitive dissonance in his 1956 book "When Prophecy Fails." In this book, he chronicled the followers of a UFO cult who, when faced with the reality that their predicted end of the world date had come and gone, found ways to justify and strengthen their beliefs, rather than experience the discomfort of questioning and abandoning them. In this way, those around Sandusky similarly engaged in reducing cognitive dissonance. They had a view of Sandusky, of those in his position, or of those who are revered in football to be of a particular moral character. When faced with suggestions or evidence to the contrary, they must have experienced significant cognitive dissonance. After all, how could a founder of children's charity, a respected football coach, assistant to such a revered coach of a revered college, in such a revered sport, be a pedophile? And so, they engaged in the processes to eliminate this dissonance, such as minimization, justifying and denial. They preserved their view of Sandusky, of Paterno, of Penn State and of football, by eliminating any cognitive dissonance the new knowledge would have brought. This cognitive dissonance was experienced on a wide scale resulting in many people on many levels engaging in the process to remove it. This is the beginning of the conspiracy of silence.

The other factor at work here, on a broader scale relates to how, as a society, we understand and treat weakness and power. In his celebrated 1947 book "If This Is A Man", author and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi wisely invited us to consider that "a country is considered the more civilized the more the wisdom and efficiency of its laws hinder a weak man from becoming too weak and a powerful one too powerful." He, of course, was reflecting on a system that had allowed the rise of the powerful to such a degree that it resulted in the ultimate incivility, the Holocaust. Levi rightly describes the problem as a systemic problem, one that results from how we, as a collective, choose to enact restraints within our systems and our societies. He reminded us that monsters do exist, "but they are too few in numbers to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are…the functionaries ready to believe and act without asking questions."

Sandusky derived special power by his alignment with a powerful college football system, a powerful coach, and a powerful profession, and our collective deference to these powers. We created and accepted a society in which these powerful forces were allowed to be too powerful. On the other hand, the children, the janitors, and perhaps even the graduate assistant coach, McQueary, may have felt themselves to be too weak to challenge the powerful system. They, perhaps, understood the position of powerlessness that they occupied. This combination of a powerful one that is too powerful, and a weak one that is too weak became a recipe for a kind of unthinkable incivility. Penn State football, and all those who were seen to contribute to its power, was too powerful, and it was the existence of this outsized power that resulted, in part, in these most egregious acts.

Sandusky may be a monster but, as suggested by Levi, what made his predatory behavior truly dangerous was the willingness with which those around him were ready to believe and act on his behalf without asking the proper questions. They were willing to do so to reduce their own cognitive dissonance. No one was willing to rock the boat, to challenge or restrain the powerful. And to the extent that Sandusky was aligned with the power system of football, he was not sufficiently challenged or restrained.

Tragically, all of these forces conspired to create a deafening silence about Sandusky's behavior, to protect individual feelings of dissonance, and to defer to the powerful at the expense of the weak.

Children were made victim and gravely harmed. We must all understand our responsibility in this.