Why Witnesses May Not Report Sex Crimes Against Minors

©Associated Press

The arrest and indictment of former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky on multiple felony counts of sexual abuse of minors has rocked not only Penn State, but the entire sports world. New charges were filed this week against two of Sandusky’s co-workers, Tim Curley and Gary Schultz, alleging that they knew the abuse was happening but did nothing to stop it. Questions remain as to the knowledge and involvement of a coverup by Penn State’s legendary coach, and Sandusky supervisor, Joe Paterno.

It’s a terrible situation. Not only was the abuse happening, but several adults knew about it and did nothing to stop further abuse. And its similar to the Boy Scouts of America cases here in California, and decades of sexual abuse allegations that rocked the Catholic Church. The first question everyone asks is “Why? Why didn’t they stop it?”

In an article by USA Today, Paul Mones, a well-known sexual abuse attorney and children’s rights advocate who has represented victims in suits against the Boy Scouts of America and Catholic Church, addressed the issue of witness silence:

“I don’t think it’s in our cultural DNA to intervene in certain situations. I would also say in my almost 30 years of doing this kind of work, it is extremely unusual for someone to walk in at the time a sexual assault on a child is taking place. And so it’s almost like the person who witnesses it can’t integrate it into their understanding of things as they see the world.

But clearly if we are to believe the grand jury report that (the grad assistant) told somebody about it, it is the rare person who will intervene, especially in large institutions. You very rarely find reports of abuse where the person is directly confronted. So, for instance, in the Catholic Church cases, when abuse happens, they don’t confront the priest and tell him to stop. They go to the person’s superior.”

Clohessy draws parallels between Penn State officials and Catholic bishops in the church’s recent abuse scandal.

“First, their refusal to call police, immediately or ever,” he said. “Second, the apparent concern for the reputation of an institution over the safety of kids. And third, the absolute bare minimum of action by smart men who know better.”

“You have to question motive here,” Clohessy said. “Common sense strongly suggests Paterno was protecting himself, his reputation and the reputation of his football program and the university itself, or some combination thereof.” via USA Today

What is unusual about this case is that someone did witness the abuse. A graduate assistant testified that not only had we walked in on Sandusky sexually assaulting a 10-year-old boy in the team showers, but that he had passed this information on to Paterno. He reported it to the appropriate university officials, but never followed up on the case. But should he have confronted Sandusky directly? Did he have a moral and legal obligation to report it to police when it was clear the university had not taken action?

It’s clear that the investigation will take many months to answer these questions and others that arise. Our hearts go out to the victims and the Penn State community as they deal with the fallout.