Campus perversion

Published : Aug 10, 2012 00:00 IST

The probe into the child abuse case at Penn State University is testimony to the ability of private agencies to deliver well-reasoned reports on major scandals.

Renowned for its academic excellence and beautiful campus with a friendly ambience, Penn State University in the United States is now going through a trauma of great intensity caused by the gross misconduct of one of its former football coaches. (The main campus State College is a six-hour drive from Philadelphia.) More than the coach Jerry Sandusky, it is the universitys high officials, by their wilful negligence, who have brought disgrace to the universitys image built up assiduously over decades. The officials, including the president (Graham Spanier) and the board of trustees, not only did not initiate action against the offender but also indulged in acts that smacked of a cover-up.

While a good police investigation and a Grand Jury trial recently helped bring the matter to its logical conclusion, it is the independent investigation commissioned by the university that brought the episode to national focus. This probe was entrusted to a dear friend, Louis Freeh, an iconic figure who when I was Director of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) was my counterpart in the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), in the late 1990s and early 2000. The thoroughness and objectivity that Freeh and his team brought to the inquiry will long be remembered as a model to be emulated worldwide by organisations that claim to be transparent.

It all started way back in 1969 when Jerry Sandusky was hired by Penn State as an assistant football coach. He and his wife did not have children of their own, but went on to adopt six. In 1977, the couple founded Second Mile, a charity for children. Interestingly, in 1990 President George H.W. Bush honoured Second Mile as the countrys 294th Point of Light. This is about the last positive reference that we can make about Sandusky, who later went on to exploit his position and gratify a despicable appetite for children for nearly two decades with the greatest ease before the law caught up with him. He was indicted by a Grand Jury in November last year on 45 criminal counts for sexually abusing 10 boys during the 1990s and late 2000s.

The account of Sanduskys crime presented before a Pennsylvania court, which was revealed by the Freeh investigation, can make anyone sick and wonder whether this was not the ultimate in human perversity. Freehs categorical finding was that this was facilitated by a university leadership that was complicit and more concerned about preserving the universitys image than about protecting vulnerable children. Sandusky was convicted recently and is awaiting his sentence.

His first shameful encounter was in 1994 with a 10-year-old kid (referred to by the prosecutor as Victim 7) who used to accompany him to meetings of coaches and also football matches, which necessitated his staying overnight with the Sandusky couple at their home. The coach misbehaved with the child during drives, and it is also known that the two showered together, a modus operandi Sandusky was to adopt with other victims. The second known victim (number 6), seven or eight years old, Sandusky met during a picnic organised by Second Mile. Around this period, for the first time the biological mother of one of the children under Sanduskys care wrote to the local probation officer and a judge expressing her concern over Sanduskys behaviour. It is not known whether this was taken cognisance of by the two authorities.

Obviously the complaint was ignored because the abuse continued at periodic intervals. In May 1998, Sanduskys objectionable activities were brought to the notice of the Campus Police by the mother of one of the victims (number 6) after she found out that her son and the coach had showered together at least on one occasion. Although the matter was probed, the District Attorney declined to press criminal charges, possibly because of the non-availability of reliable and substantial evidence to go ahead. However, Sandusky appeared penitent when he is said to have told the victims mother: I understand. I was wrong. I wish I could get forgiveness. I know I won't get it from you. I wish I were dead.

Sandursky retired from Penn State in 1999. But, ignoring the cloud he had come under, he was accorded an emeritus status, which gave him an office at the university and unrestricted access to all the football facilities on the campus. Around this time, he was in touch with two other boys, known as Victim 4 and Victim 3.

In the fall of 2000 a janitor, it is said, stumbled upon Sandusky in a compromising position with a boy in a shower in one of the football facilities, but chose to be discreet about it to avoid trouble. Two years later, a Graduate Assistant was witness to a similar incident at the same facility. At his instance the incident was brought to the notice of the athletics director, and in turn to the vice-president, finance, who went on to brief the university president. Again, no investigation was done and Sandusky was merely warned against bringing children to the Penn State campus.

Things came to a head in 2006 or 2007 (a witness is still hazy about this) when a witness reported seeing Sandusky and Victim 1 lying together on a mat at a local high school. It is not clear whether it was this or some other event that triggered the countrywide investigation in 2008, which led to his arrest in November 2011. Although he was initially released on bail, Sandusky was later arrested following a Grand Jury indictment and jailed. In June this year, he was convicted on 45 criminal counts for the abuse of 10 children. He is likely to get a minimum of 60 years in prison.

Undoubtedly, the Sandusky affair has tarnished Penn States hitherto glorious image. The apparent lack of sensitivity of the universitys leadership to its responsibility for protecting children will cause the greatest damage. Also, under the Clery Act, every university has to report on crimes taking place on its campus. This legal obligation was also ignored by Penn State, something that would put off potential donors.

There are several perspectives to the whole story from a criminal justice point of view. First is the magnitude of the problem of child abuse, especially its pervasive nature and its presence in the most unexpected places. While there is a general level of awareness and confidence with regard to safeguarding women, in the case of children there is a galling lack of capacity among parents to take care of their wards because both parents are invariably engaged in full-time jobs. Schools were hitherto considered safe places for children when their parents were away at work. This complacence no longer seems justified. Employers, educational institutions and social service organisations have a crucial role to play in devising a sustainable strategy.

What stands out in the Sandusky case is the ability of private investigation agencies to deliver well-reasoned reports on major scandals. At Penn State, a former FBI Director of great repute gave the needed drive to a carefully chosen team of ace investigators to collect the evidence in a painstaking manner and piece it together. This was professional work marked by the highest degree of integrity. Will non-governmental organisations in India opt for this alternative in times when their bona fides are questioned? Such experiments need courage, which is fast becoming a scarce commodity.

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