Mon. May 29th, 2023


Editor’s Note: This article will review at least four specific areas of catastrophic failure in the hopes that readers can turn this tragedy into a learning opportunity. It also contains graphic material.

    By now the entire nation has heard about the sexual abuse scandal on the campus of Penn State University.  If the allegations in the grand jury indictment are factually correct, these events represent a colossal breakdown of the educational, social welfare, and criminal justice systems in the jurisdiction.  For whatever reason, a succession of individuals failed to fulfill legal (and moral) obligations, resulting in a both the inability to address allegations of sexual abuse and to prevent further victimization.  

   Laws and procedures have been put in place to address and prevent the sexual abuse of children.  All too often allegations of child sexual abuse do not come to light because they occur behind closed doors.  In this case, there were a number of incidents where the individuals had enough information to intervene and prevent the continuation of the abuse.  

  Briefly, the grand jury indictment obtained testimony from victims and eyewitnesses who alleged that Jerry Sandusky, a former assistant coach of the Penn State football team, sexually molested and abused at least eight males who were between the ages of 10–13 when the abuse started.  The alleged conduct mentioned in the indictment goes as far back as 1994.  Sandusky was an active coach with Penn State from 1967–1999.  In 1977 he started a non-profit organization called The Second Mile.  The goal of the organization was to assist “at-risk” children by involving them in positive activities to build their self-esteem.    

   The indictment alleges that he met every victim through this organization.

  Starting with the Child Abuse and Protection Act of 1974, both federal and state-level governments have attempted to provide protection for children through legislation and the creation of agencies to investigate child abuse incidents.  Pennsylvania law requires certain individuals to report child abuse when they have “reasonable cause” to suspect that a child is being abused (PA 23 Con. Stat. 6311). 

   The list of individuals that are mandated to report such suspicions include school teachers, school administrators, law enforcement officials, and any individual whose occupation causes them to come in contact with children.  

Failure # 1

   Judging solely from the contents of the grand jury indictment, the first time law enforcement officers heard of the allegations against Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was sometime in 1998.  A then 11-year old boy (identified as Victim #5) returned home from Penn State with wet hair.  After admitting to his mother that he had been in the shower with Sandusky, she reported the incident to campus police.  The indictment names four law enforcement officers as being involved in the investigation.  According to the indictment, these officers did fulfill their legal obligation to report the incident to the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare (DPW).  However, pursuant to a combined law enforcement and DPW investigation, Sandusky walked away with a stern warning not to shower with children again.  The failure of the law enforcement and social welfare representatives to proceed with a case against Sandusky, or, at the very minimum to have Penn State authorities ban him from the campus, represents the first in a series of failures in this case.

Failure #2

  Apparently the warning from campus police was not enough to deter Sandusky as the indictment alleges that nearly two years later he was observed performing oral sex on a young boy (Victim #8) in a shower on the campus of Penn State.  On this occasion, a janitor observed the crime.  He relayed the incident to fellow employees and to his immediate supervisor.  He was given advice on whom to report it to, but neither he nor his supervisor did so.  Their failure to report this incident to authorities was a second major breakdown in the system.  The indictment alleges that employees were afraid to report the incident because they feared they would lose their jobs.  

Failure #3

   The third failure, based on the indictment, occurred in 2002.  A 28 year-old graduate assistant witnessed a young male (estimated to be 10 years old) being sodomized in the football showers.  Instead of calling 911 to report the felonious rape of a child, he reported it to his father, who then advised him to leave the area.  According to the indictment, the graduate assistant then met with Joe Paterno and advised him of the incident.  This meeting led to a subsequent meeting with the athletic director Tim Curley and Penn State administrator Gary Schultz.  In spite of an eyewitness account of the commission of a felony against a young child, neither Curley nor Schultz notified the Department of Public Welfare as required by law.  In addition, they did not notify the campus police.  In fact, the only action they allegedly took was to “direct” Sandusky to not use the Penn State’s athletic facilities with young people, and to advise the director of The Second Mile of the incident.  There is no evidence that any of the adults in this incident attempted to identify the victim, notify the parents, or provide any assistance for the rape victim in this incident.

Failure #4

    According to the website of The Second Mile organization (, in 2002, they were advised of a version of the alleged activities of Sandusky.  The statement on the website indicates that they did not receive the full version of events and were not aware of the “serious allegations” uncovered by the grand jury.  In spite of being a non-profit organization for children, they did not conduct an investigation of the incident and by their own admission did not prohibit Sandusky from participating in their program, including unsupervised interaction with children.  Additionally, they did not seek to identify  The Second Mile participant involved in the incident, notify his parents, or extend any services to the child.  As an organization which deals with children, administrators and employees are mandated to report suspected child abuse to the Department of Social Welfare.  There is no evidence that they did so.  It wasn’t until 2008 when Sandusky admitted that he was under investigation, yet again, for child sexual abuse that The Second Mile decided to terminate their relationship with him.   

Lesson #1

   So where are the lessons in this series of repetitive and tragic events?  The first lesson is that the law requires individuals whose occupations bring them in contact with children to report suspicion of child abuse.  This includes educators, law enforcement officers, coaches, and any organization whose employees work with or serve children.  In fact, the failure of a mandated reporter to report suspected child abuse is actually a crime in Pennsylvania, a misdemeanor of the second degree (PA 23 Con. Stat. 6319).  

   What constitutes suspicion of child abuse?  While a full review of legal standards of proof is beyond the scope of this article, the behavior alleged in the indictment against Sandusky would clearly meet the standard of “reasonable cause” to suspect child abuse.  The indictment alleges two separate eyewitness
accounts of sexual conduct (anal intercourse and oral sex) perpetrated by Sandusky on children.  In fact, if a law enforcement officer had been immediately contacted in either case, the eyewitness accounts would have provided probable cause to make an on-scene felony arrest of Sandusky, without a warrant.

Lesson #2

  The indictment alleged that the janitorial employees were afraid to report the incident because they feared that their jobs would be in jeopardy.  Their fears were unfounded.  Pennsylvania state law provides both civil and criminal immunity for individuals who report suspected child abuse.  Additionally, the law provides for civil redress of any discrimination or adverse employment action taken against employees for reporting suspected child abuse.  Employees need not be afraid to report child abuse to child welfare agencies as they have civil and criminal immunity and are protected from discriminatory and adverse employment action taken against them in retaliation for reporting child abuse.  In fact, child abuse reports can be made anonymous through a toll-free number (1-800-4-A-CHILD) from anywhere in the United States. 

Lesson #3

  Sexual offenders, pedophiles in particular, have patterns of offending.  One pattern is to involve themselves in circumstances where they have access to children.  If the allegations against Sandusky are credible, it appears as if Sandusky created his own pool of victims by starting The Second Mile in 1977.  Child abusers also tend to prey on children who already have experienced dysfunction in their lives.  This dysfunction creates the opportunity for the abuser to become a source of emotional support for the child, thus creating vulnerability.  Abusers will sometimes volunteer as camp counselors, Boy Scout leaders, or sports coaches to bring them into contact with children.  

Lesson #4

   When reviewing sexual offending cases, it is often discovered that a number of people knew, or were suspicious of the activity and did nothing.  In this case, one wonders how much Sandusky’s wife knew about the alleged activities.  The indictment alleges that she made phone calls to victims apparently in an attempt to talk to them before they were to testify to the grand jury.  That behavior is not unusual.  It’s found that family members, in specific, mothers and wives tend to enable the abuser.  Sexual abuse thrives on secrecy.  While the victims cannot be blamed for not disclosing, in most cases of sexual abuse someone else knows or was suspicious, but did not act.  Their failure to act leads to the continued perpetration of abuse.

Lesson #5

  Pedophiles will not stop until stopped by law enforcement, and sometimes that is not even enough to deter them from repeating their offenses.  In this case, as in so many others, we see a multitude of victims.  Pedophiles that are not confronted or treated continue to amass an alarming number of victims throughout their lifetime.  One study of 561 pedophiles that molested young boys had an average of 281 different sexual acts with 150 victims (Abel et al., 1987).  It would not be surprising to experienced child abuse investigators to see the numbers of victims listed in the indictment grow significantly, particularly since The Second Mile has been around since 1977.  

Lesson #6

  Lastly, there is a lesson about intervening in criminal actions.  While Pennsylvania law does not make explicit reference to citizen’s arrest, it does indicate that when a private person is making an arrest they have the same rights to use force as would a law enforcement officer (PA 18 Cons. Stat. 508b).  The Crimes Code of Pennsylvania allows citizens to use force (including deadly force) to protect themselves from death or serious bodily harm.  That use of force also extends to protecting others from death or serious bodily harm.  One can make the argument that both witnesses to Sandusky’s felonious assaults (graduate assistant and janitor) not only had the civic (and moral) obligation to intervene to protect these children, but also had the legal authorization to do so.  The lesson here is that a citizen should take immediate action to stop an act of child abuse by whatever actions necessary.  At the very least, this can be accomplished by verbally confronting the suspect and notifying them that the police are being called.  However, the law would authorize using force to subdue and detain the suspect for the police.  It is hard to imagine that there are people in this world that would observe such crimes against a child and not take immediate action to stop the abuse.

  Because of the inactions and omissions of a number of individuals, the victims continued to stack up from 1998–2005.  At present there are at least eight alleged victims (documented) who now are potentially suffering from the long-term effects of child sexual abuse.  The effects from child sexual trauma are many.  Victims suffer from a loss of self-esteem, depression, and suicidal thoughts (and sometimes actions).  Research indicates that many victims of sexual abuse turn to alcohol or drugs to attempt to deal with the negative feelings surrounding those experiences.  Psychiatric disorders, including multiple personality disorder, bi-polar disorder, and posttraumatic stress disorder have all been found in victims of child sexual abuse.  

   What started as an organization to help “at-risk” children from single-family and dysfunctional homes has allegedly turned into the feeding ground for a sexual offender.  This tragedy calls into question the legitimacy of our educational, social welfare, and criminal justice systems in relation to the protection of children.  These systems are only as good as those who work in them.  The events at Penn State stress the importance of ethical and legal decision-making.  In criminal justice we stress the judicious use of discretion as the decisions by criminal justice practitioners truly can change the trajectory of an individual’s life.  The same can be said for educators, educational administrators and social welfare practitioners.  

   Years ago I came across a business card provided by The Southwestern Law Enforcement Institute.  It was designed to guide police officers in ethical decision-making.  I often use the contents of this card in my presentations to student on law enforcement ethics.  The card contained questions one should ask when making law enforcement decisions.  Is it legal?  Will my actions violate any laws, constitutions, or statues?  How will I feel about myself?  Will my actions withstand public scrutiny?  Asking these questions may have helped the individuals involved in the Penn State scandal make more appropriate decisions.  However, there is one other pertinent question that may have illuminated the situation and caused them take actions in this case that they did not.  What would someone do if that was his or her child?


Abel, G., Becker, J., Cunningham-Rathner, J., & Rouleau, J.  (1987). Predicting child 

molesters response to treatment.  Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 528 (1988), 223–334.

Penn State Grand Jury Indictment.

   Jane M. Tucker (ABD) is an
Associate Professor in the Criminal Justice Department at West Chester University.  She is a retired police officer with training in child sexual abuse and interviewing sexually abused children.  

She can be reached at


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