Could the Penn State Abuse Scandal Happen Somewhere Else? Definitely

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An interview with Chris Gavagan, director of a documentary about sexual abuse in sports

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With the release of a damning, 267-page investigative report compiled by former FBI director Louis Freeh, the ongoing child sex abuse scandal engulfing Penn State University and former football coach Joe Paterno went from bad to worse, with possible negligence involving the sex crimes perpetrated by former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky giving way to a probable cover-up.

For Chis Gavagan, however, the contents of the Freeh report were hardly surprising.

A Brooklyn-based filmmaker, Gavagan is working on Coached Into Silence, a documentary about sexual abuse in sports that includes interviews with experts, victims, and a roller hockey coach Gavagan claims abused him when he was a teenager.

To understand how Penn State fits into the larger context of sexual abuse by coaches—as well as how the university's leaders could display what Freeh termed a "total disregard for the safety and welfare of Sandusky's child victims"—The Atlantic spoke with Gavagan about the report, Paterno, and where the school goes from here.


What similarities do you see between the Penn State depicted in the Freeh Report and the cases of child sex abuse by sports coaches documented in your film?

You could white out every proper name in the Freeh report and apply it to institutions all over this country that have failed in their responsibility to protect children. Time after time, the evidence has shown the most powerful and influential decision-makers circling the wagons and conspiring to decide, "How are we going to handle this?"

Victims are the last possible priority. Over and over, you see the drive to keep it quiet, to put it "behind us" with the fewest possible people being aware of it. In many cases—particularly at schools whose pristine reputation is paramount—rather than making a successful coach go away, they have made an accuser or the accusations go away.

In one elite prep school featured in the film, several students who came forward about abuse they suffered were quietly dismissed. In other cases, there have been payments handed out, "hush money" to convince a parent pushing the issue to relent.

It would shock me if the same tactics have not been put into play with Penn State over the decades of Jerry Sandusky's involvement with the program, which began in the late 1960's.

What differences do you see between Penn State and the cases you've covered?

The difference is the documentation. In most other cases, there will never be a report. We will never see this evidence. We will never be privy to these discussions. Without the national spotlight, most of these institutions have been able to avoid the scrutiny of such an investigation. Often, a loophole in the law -- such as widely varying state-by-state statutes of limitations—can provide another shield. If an institution can avoid, delay and intimidate long enough, they can make Penn State [vice president Gary] Schultz' 1998 e-mail wish "I hope it is all behind us" a legal reality.

Prior to the ubiquity of email, an institution would have just solved much of this problem with payoff for an accuser and a shredder for the incriminating documentation. In some ways, we are fortunate that technology has created more of a trail in these cases.

Generally speaking, how does something like this happen?

It takes a village to enable a sexual predator to continue unfettered for so long. The combination of ignorance of warning signs and willfully hidden information are necessary for these abuses to go on for decades.

Pillars of the community are given much more of a benefit of the doubt, but what has been demonstrated, unfortunately, is that nobody can be considered beyond reproach. The greatest masks of all are apparent good intentions and a smile. This is one of the most insidious aspects of these crimes. The stranger in the trench coat preying on children is the rarest of cases—the overwhelming majority are perpetrated by someone who is both trusted and known to the child.

In our film, we discussed with former Sports Illustrated editor Don Yaeger his process of researching his 1999 cover article "Every Parent's Nightmare." In our interview, he quotes a pedophile as calling coaching "the last great candy store of opportunity." Not only did the most powerful men at Penn State choose not to shut down Sandusky's candy store when it was brought to their attention, but by allowing his continued access to all things Penn State they went above and beyond to ensure that it remained open for business and that the shelves were stocked with the sweetest bait a young boy could imagine.

Which specific details of the Freeh report most stood out to you, and why?

The coded, callous discussions of incidents that Schultz called "at worst sexual improprieties"—and the talk of needing to clarify to Sandusky his "guests' use of the facilities"—is appalling. They refer to a child victim of rape as if he were a kid being punished for peeing in the pool. It shows a complete and utter disregard for other human beings.

The nameless boy in the shower was someone's child.

Also, the fact that information was withheld from the board right until the last possible moment, time and time again, demonstrates the danger of a lack of accountability and oversight. [Penn State president Graham] Spanier, [athletic director Tim] Curley, and Schultz come across as the last men shouting that the Titanic is unsinkable, even as their lungs are filling with frigid water of the North Atlantic.

How does the disregard for children happen?

More often than not, this kind of disregard occurs in tiny dehumanizing increments. For a human being, no matter what is at stake to professionally or financially, to take actions that enable these abuses to continue, they must begin by not seeing the victim as a human. The farther you get away from that flesh and blood child—nameless and faceless—the easier it is for you to proceed.

There is a reason that the prosecutors in the Sandusky trial opened their case by showing photographs of the victims at the ages that they were when these crimes were committed against them—because it works. I was sitting in that courtroom, and to be forced to face the very real, very human toll of these crimes is unbelievably powerful.

The men in power at Penn State did not have to face that. They faced words, they faced an idea, and by facing only that I believe they were able to discount, to some extent, the horrors that were being committed on their watch. There are things that one must lie to themselves about in order to be a part of, if you are to live with yourself. I would imagine that sacrificing a child to the "greater good" of an institution is one such case.

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Patrick Hruby is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He has contributed to Sports on Earth, ESPN.com, and Washingtonian magazine, and his work has been featured in The Best American Sports Writing. He is a former adjunct professor at Georgetown University.

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