It was the most raw and emotionally brutal court cases I’ve ever sat through — the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania vs. Jerry Sandusky. Eight young men ranging in age from 18 to 28 testifying about their utter loss of innocence at the hands of a serial pedophile who plucked his prey out of the ranks of his own charity. The powerful and often tearful testimony came at us rat-a-tat-tat so that observers felt smacked between the eyes at the end of every day.
In the end, Sandusky was found guilty of 45 of 48 charges of sexually abusing young boys. I suppose you could call it a victory for the damaged young men who climbed into the witness box and sobbed while, literally, gasping for breath as they told their gut-wrenching stories. But really no one wins. Not even if the victims get a monetary settlement from Penn State University, the institution that first learned of Sandusky’s proclivities back in 1998 and still let him roam its campus and locker room showers with his young targets in tow. Talk about enablers!
I began reporting on high-profile suspected pedophiles 19 years ago when I became the first to tell the world that California police had targeted Michael Jackson as a possible molester of boys. I followed the Jackson story for more than a decade, and as I sat in the Sandusky courtroom I marveled at the parallels.
Although a jury found Jackson not guilty on all counts, in my opinion, his behavior and that of Sandusky are classic case studies of how a serial predatory pedophile acts.
Both men were famous — one admired on an international stage, the other within his community and the world of sports. Both men projected an aura of truly caring about children. Jackson outfitted his Neverland Ranch to be the quintessential child magnet, with its full-scale amusement park, zoo and movie theater.
Sandusky, as we learned through testimony, designed his own boy-cave in the basement of his home, with games, a dartboard, pool table, air hockey table, television and water bed. Both men focused on boys from single-family homes where beleaguered mothers were grateful to have what they saw as a positive “father figure” for their boys.
When questioned about their constant proximity to other people’s young sons, both Jackson and Sandusky professed the world did not understand their actions, that they “truly loved” all children, and they made a point to sprinkle a few girls among the crowd of boys to cover up their secret lust.
And when their actions with children were exposed, both men very publicly turned on the very thing they claimed they loved so much — the children — calling them liars, money-grubbers and conniving manipulators out to hurt a great man for some unexplained reason.
It was sickening to watch years ago and even more sickening to sit in that courtroom the last couple of weeks and realize the general population still doesn’t realize how to spot a pedophile on the prowl.
I get weary wondering how long it will take to convince people that pedophiles are really the very people you think they could never be. They are the most charming, personable, charitable and kid-friendly people you would ever want to meet. They pay their taxes, go to church, often have respectable jobs and cloak themselves in acts of charity. They say they just want to help you raise your child by being a positive influence in their lives.
Remember, pedophiles are on the hunt all the time, and it is their charm that gets them past the parent so that they can then prey on the child. When they get caught, they rely on authorities to look at their “upstanding lives” and compare it to the life of the single parent and troubled kid who is making the allegations against them. Too often detectives have believed the perpetrator’s version of events, and they are left alone to violate again.
I don’t want to make parents into monsters of suspicion, but the only way to stop pedophiles from targeting children is for grown-ups to learn how to identify them. If the overly friendly person has a “special place” they take kids, if they are always surrounded by one gender of child, if the suspect takes kids home to watch movies (a typical grooming tool is to “mistakenly” show pornography to a child to gauge their reaction), if the child comes home in an uncharacteristically somber mood or with wet hair or clothes -— get suspicious. The warning signs are often there if adults just pay attention.
Parents can educate our children about “good touch/bad touch,” but again, these serial predators are so masterful at what they do, your child will already be victimized by the time they realize what kind of touch they’ve just gotten.
Look, we know the damage childhood sexual abuse causes. Victimized kids grow into angry, troubled adults. So when do we break the cycle? How do we let every child know they must never keep such a secret? We’ve launched successful campaigns to get people to fasten their seat belts or quit smoking. We set up a nationwide system to make sure terrorists don’t board airplanes. So why can’t we come up with a cohesive plan to educate people to stamp out predatory pedophiles?
The answer is: We can — if we make it a priority.