For more than 15 years, I have dedicated a portion of my professional career to children’s rights and the fight to protect children from abuse. Ten of those years, I spent representing Dauphin County Children & Youth, where I litigated more than 450 child abuse appeals before the Department of Public Welfare.
In this quasi-prosecutorial role, I fought to ensure that those who were identified as perpetrators of child abuse remained on the statewide ChildLine database.
Prosecuting child abuse-related crimes is extraordinarily difficult, often more so than even homicide cases. Most individuals understand the concept of one person killing another — albeit justified or not. To the contrary, it is our society’s human nature to want to disbelieve that one human being can sexually abuse the most innocent members of our community, our children.
Prosecutors must first convince the jury that adults can and do sexually abuse children. Then they must prove to the jury that the individual before them did those heinous acts.
As the Sandusky trial unfolded, I heard many differing opinions on what the verdict might be. There were many who said “Where is the proof that the child was sexually abused by Sandusky?” These statements exemplify the difficulties facing prosecutors in trying these cases and victims have in telling their stories. Rarely is there physical evidence to corroborate the sexual assault of a child.
The “CSI” effect is a factor as the public expects videotapes of the incident to appear, DNA to be left behind or injuries to be caused upon the child victim. This simply is not the real world.
The statements that have been made about Gov. Corbett’s handling of the Sandusky investigation while he was attorney general created unfair confusion about how to best pursue a child abuser who operated behind the veil of charity and prestige for many years.
Two of the Sandusky victims were brought to the attention of law enforcement and child protective agencies. In Centre County, in 1998, the district attorney opted against prosecution. A decade later, CYS officials in Clinton County were notified of complaints by the boy known as Victim No. 8.
But it was only after an anonymous referral in 2009 that the attorney general’s office, under Corbett, did something unique. It assumed jurisdiction in the matter of Sandusky even after county prosecutors passed on the case. Were it not for this rare decision, Sandusky would not have faced justice.
There were significant impediments to the attorney general’s investigation that had to be overcome before formal charges could be filed against Sandusky:
-The mere fact that other prosecutors had information and chose not to charge.
-Element of time of more than a decade passing since the first report.
-Investigating a revered defensive football coach who many contend built
-Potentially placing a never-ending scar on the face of an outstanding state university and its larger-than-life coach.
Had then-Attorney General Corbett decided not to bring charges, many would have concluded that he was somehow protecting Penn State. On the other hand, should charges have been warranted, as they obviously were, the collateral consequences for one of the nation’s most well-known universities and its winningest coach would undoubtedly bring swift consequences and criticisms.
The trail was cold on some of the cases. One of the victims, seen in a Penn State shower with Sandusky, could not even be located.
The major problem was taking on a larger-than-life football hero who had further enlarged his stature by running a charity for troubled boys. Sandusky enjoyed the aura of Penn State and its legendary coach. Building that sort of case requires time and a wealth of evidence.
While there is rarely physical evidence of child sexual abuse, there are many ways to strengthen a prosecution through corroboration of the child’s story as to where the incident(s) occurred or, as with the Sandusky case, statements of multiple child victims. It is imperative that criminal charges are not lodged prematurely as this might jeopardize the chances for conviction.
The plain fact is that the Sandusky investigation took so long because it was so thorough and, because it was so thorough, Sandusky was convicted of 45 charges and his victims were finally given some measure of closure.
With the investigation continuing, investigators are now likely to find more victims. With Sandusky’s guilt confirmed and his veneer as a surrogate dad to troubled boys stripped away, those who struggled with the confusion and self-loathing that comes with sexual victimhood will no longer see his stature as standing between them and a willingness to tell the truth.
That doesn’t happen overnight.
Without Corbett’s willingness to do the right thing the right way, it wouldn’t have happened at all.