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Sandusky’s crimes of 10 years ago have opened window into dark world of child sex abuse

Jerry Sandusky was trusted.

The assistant coach and defensive coordinator for the Penn State football team had built a reputation over decades as being an avuncular, teetotaling, churchgoing family man. He was a tall, white-haired dad to adopted and foster children, and led a charity dedicated to helping needy youth. There was really nothing about Sandusky that would indicate he was anything other than “a really good guy,” as one old Washington friend told The New York Times.

Within a smaller circle, however, there had been whispers that Sandusky had unseemly relationships with some of the young men he was supposed to be mentoring. A graduate assistant at Penn State even reported to higher-ups in 2001 that he had witnessed Sandusky sexually assaulting a boy in the showers at the university, but law enforcement was not contacted. A few years before, the Centre County district attorney didn’t press a case when evidence emerged about Sandusky behaving inappropriately with children.

The illusion of Sandusky’s unassuming decency came crashing down 10 years ago this month, when he was arrested on more than 50 counts of child molestation. It also destroyed the careers of former football coach Joe Paterno and other Penn State administrators, including president Graham Spanier, who served time in prison this year on a charge of child endangerment stemming from the case. Sandusky himself remains an inmate at SCI-Laurel Highlands, a facility for older or infirm offenders. He still proclaims his innocence, but it’s extraordinarily unlikely that he will ever get the new trial he wants or will breathe free again.

That Sandusky was able to cause so much harm year after year brought shame to Penn State and many of Sandusky’s associates. It also brought valuable changes to how child sexual abuse cases are handled. Background checks were broadened in Pennsylvania to include more adults who come in contact with children, whether in a professional or volunteer capacity. Everyone from clergy to funeral directors, health care workers and educators are now considered mandated reporters. Perhaps most importantly, it increased awareness so suspicions can now be aired more freely. It’s less likely now than it was a decade ago that victims will have to suffer in silence and humiliation.

Marci Hamilton, the CEO of the nonprofit Child USA think tank, recently told Greensburg’s Tribune-Review, “When the scandal at Penn State broke, it was as though it radically changed what people were willing to talk about. It was the case that opened up a whole, dark universe.”

Nothing will erase the ignominy of Sandusky and those who looked the other way when he was on his crime spree, and nothing will truly make his victims whole. We can only hope that by opening up that “whole, dark universe,” fewer malefactors like Sandusky will be able to inflict so much pain for so many years.

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