Penn State & The Cast of Characters in an Abusive System

In the wake of the recent conviction of Jerry Sandusky, former Penn State Defensive coordinator, on charges of child molestation, a few words.  Much has already been uttered about this case, but I will attempt to highlight a few of what I will call the “cast of characters” that appear in many cases of abuse.  The Sandusky legal proceedings, and especially testimonies, have provided a host of grotesque examples of roles that people occupy surrounding abusers and within abusive systems.

Protector—This role is most often occupied by the spouse of an abuser.  Mrs. Sandusky testified on behalf of her husband and spoke mainly to contradict the testimony of men alleging to have been abused in the Sandusky home.  This person is often the person who has the most intimate contact with an abuser and thus represents the person who could most clearly expose them or most effectively protect the abuser and thus ensure that abuse continues.  The protector operates from a position that incorporates obtuse forms of denial, indifference to the harm of others, fear of reprisal, and a desire to protect themself.

Gatekeeper—It was revealed in the last few months that a Vice President at Penn State had a Sandusky file detailing allegations against Jerry Sandusky that had surfaced over several years.  I continue to find this particular revelation about the case nauseating —each report represents someone’s attempt to bring to light the horror being perpetrated.  The gatekeeper functions to keep track of data, be it memories, anecdotes, suspicions, or actual reports, often for the purpose of damage control.  Family or institutional “reputation” and personal loyalty to the abuser animate most gatekeepers.

The Choir—As the defense was calling people to testify on behalf of Jerry Sandusky, the late Joe Paterno’s wife and son went to the stand to essentially say “that’s not the kind of man Jerry is” and that he was innocent of the charges.  Their testimony followed repeated graphic and horrific stories of Sandusky’s abuse of boys and young men, and was part of an attempt to exonerate the defendant, which I realize is not uncommon in the adversarial arena of the courtroom.  However, many abusers are surrounded by people who will blithely assert that this person “could never have…” when abuse is alleged or confronted.

Sexual abuse and the resultant trauma nearly always involve a larger cast of characters than simply abuser and abused.  The Sandusky trial shone a bright, public light on a horrific plotline that plays out time and time again in families, relationships and organizations.


Andy Ide is a member of The Allender Center Teaching Staff and an alumnus of The Seattle School