Former Penn State Assistant Football Coach Jerry Sandusky was sentenced Tuesday to 30 to 60 years behind bars for sexually abusing ten boys over a 15 year period, the latest in a string of high-profile child sex abuse cases that have stunned the US.
"You abused the trust of those who trusted you. These are not crimes against strangers, they are much worse,” Judge John Cleland told an emotional Sandusky before a packed courtroom. “This sentence will put you in prison for the rest of your life.”
Sandusky, 68, maintains his innocence, telling the court he did not commit “these disgusting acts,” a claim that outraged his victims.
"His statement today was a masterpiece of banal self-delusion completely untethered from reality," said prosecutor Joseph McGettigan. "It was entirely self-focused. It was, in short, ridiculous."
Sandusky – once considered the heir-apparent to legendary Penn State football coach, the late Joe Paterno – could have been sentenced to as many as 400 years in prison for abusing the troubled boys who were brought to him for help through the Second Mile Charity he founded.
The Sandusky case, for all its grim notoriety, is far from unique on the American landscape. But it is also part of a pivotal trend that indicates an increase in reporting of such cases and a decrease in the number of incidents.
There was a 3 percent drop in child sexual abuse cases from 2009 to 2010, the most recent figures available, according to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System, which compiles statistics from state child protection agencies. In 2010 there were about 63,300 cases, or just fewer than nine cases per 10,000 children in the US.
“I think we are at a watershed moment, where the public’s awareness of child sex abuse has never been higher,” said Teresa Huizar, executive director of the National Children’s Alliance which trains and supports child advocacy centers across the United States.
“There’s also an understanding of the need to report suspected abuse. In the Catholic Church years ago there was widespread debate over mandatory reporting laws, and today there is a more common understanding in the public that there really is a moral obligation to report,” said Huizar.
Part of that change in public perception, she says, comes from criminal prosecutions not just against the accused abusers but also against high-profile officials charged with failing to report suspected abuse.
There have been to date thousands of civil lawsuits filed against the Catholic Church, alleging a pattern of protecting predatory priests, with settlements estimated to be upwards of $2 billion. In June, the same day Sandusky was convicted, Philadelphia’s Monsignor William Lynn was convicted of felony child endangerment. His conviction – he is now in prison serving a three-to-six-year sentence – makes him the first senior church official in the US to be convicted of covering up sexual abuse by priests he supervised.
There have also been thousands of charges of sexual abuse against volunteers and leaders of the Boy Scouts of America. On Monday, an attorney representing alleged victims released nearly 1,900 names of suspected abusers who were expelled from the Boy Scouts in decades past, many of them men who have never faced criminal charges, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Organizations and families alike can be groomed by child sexual predators, said Huizar, so that alarming behavior that allows private access to a child gradually becomes normal and seems safe.
“The first time Jerry Sandusky wanted to take a child onto the Penn State campus, that might have raised an eyebrow, but he groomed Penn State to accept a whole lot of behavior that in retrospect seems clearly inappropriate from start to last,” she said.
“With the Catholic Church, first they recruited many of these boys to be altar boys, and they’re showing up at the family home, then they’re asking, ‘Would it be okay to take him on some sort of a church trip?’ If someone had just asked if they could take your child in this way it would never be allowed.”
“Many of us would like to hope that the publicity surrounding these very high profile cases coming one after another, that this is helping to raise the consciousness about child sexual abuse and particularly abuse of boys,” said David Lisak, an expert in child abuse violence and a founding board member of 1in6.org, which offers outreach and support services for male victims of sex abuse.
But Lisak admits, there is concern the figures reflect a temporary uptick in awareness that will fade away.
“Think about Sandusky and how long he was sexually abusing children before he was caught,” Lisak said. “There are many Jerry Sandusky’s out there, and we don’t know about the vast majority of them.
The expectation, say experts, is not that child sexual abuse can be halted, but that it can be significantly derailed, and that when it does occur, victims will be willing to come forward so that perpetrators can be stopped. That requires a loss of public innocence, and a willingness to question even known, respected organizations.
“Who would have ever thought a famous coach of a major college football team would be running this incredible predatory operation abusing who knows how many kids? Who would have thought we had a network of priests who were not only sexually abusing kids individually but trading kids?” asked Lisak.
“Rather than thinking ‘Oh my God, it’s everywhere,’ we have to think it can be anywhere. We have to not think, ‘Surely a religious organization or an organization like the Boy Scouts, surely a university would respond morally and ethically and work in the best interest of children.’ We can’t make those assumptions.”
Experts say that in order for the drop in child sex abuse cases to continue, both individual families and institutions have to remain aware that it can happen to any child.
“I think there is good evidence that child sexual abuse is declining,” said Huizar. “But we are not even close to stamping it out.”