For Jerry Sandusky, yesterday was all about the gavel of justice thundering down and sending him away for the rest of his days -- no more than a jury of his peers found that he deserved.
For the rest of us -- those who control institutions with immense power to help or harm the young and vulnerable, those who write and enforce the laws around sexual abuse, and all the rest of us, whatever our status in life, who learn that abuse is happening -- it was a day for an honest examination of conscience: What have they, what have we, done to guard in our own sphere, as carefully as human nature allows, against a repetition of anything like Sandusky's sexual abuses?
The nature of Sandusky's predatory crimes against boys was both egregious and frightfully standard. Too often, those who prey on children have that opportunity because they hold positions of power and respect that make not only the boys but their parents feel flattered by the attentions of the abuser-in-waiting. This has happened in a dreary succession of settings, from the Catholic Church to the Boy Scouts.
Sandusky exhibited the classic behaviors of a pedophile, grooming his victims, bestowing favors on them, allowing them the thrill of proximity to a revered institution: Penn State football. In that world, a powerhouse that has turned out many NFL stars, Sandusky stood only a shallow step below the grand demigod of Penn State, head coach Joe Paterno. And, as the jury found, he used that exalted position in his pursuit of perverted pleasure -- he was convicted on 45 counts of abusing 10 boys -- in ways that will haunt his victims long after he has died in prison. Sandusky even set up a charity for troubled boys, and he used it to make some of them even more troubled.
Even if he had chosen to use his sentencing as the forum for an abject apology, instead of indulging in a self-pitying statement, Sandusky could not even have begun to repair the damage. The worst of it, of course, is that his acts forever wounded his victims. Beyond that, he set off a spasm of cover-up that tarred the careers of Paterno, who all but turned a blind eye to the abuse; former Penn State president Graham Spanier; athletic director Tim Curley; and assistant coach Mike McQueary, who testified that he saw Sandusky "sexually molesting" a boy in a shower, but did not intervene immediately.
The clear lesson is that the act of covering up in the name of preserving the institution from scandal is as depraved in its own way as the covered-up acts themselves. That pedophiles act out of an ungoverned passion is no excuse for them. But those who not only fail to stop those acts, but fail to report them and even actively conceal them, are acting not out of passion but out of a cold, selfish calculus that places institutional pride above the welfare of children.
As Sandusky shuffles off to his richly deserved isolation from society, the leaders of institutions, legislators and prosecutors would do well to read, reread and take to heart the 267-page report on this case by Louis Freeh, former FBI director. They must do whatever it takes, from fine-tuning laws requiring the reporting of abuse to creating additional internal safeguards. We'd all like to forget Sandusky, but we must not forget the lessons his crimes should teach us.