When once-renowned sports physician Larry Nassar was sentenced to prison last month for sexually assaulting well over a hundred girls and young women in his care, many stories compared the case to that of Jerry Sandusky, the disgraced former Penn State University football coach serving a de facto life sentence for abusing boys. That’s not surprising: Sandusky’s name has become synonymous with “serial child molester.” Anyone defending Sandusky’s innocence risks being seen as the same species of crank that argues school shootings are hoaxes.
But veteran journalist Mark Pendergrast takes that risk in a recently published book “The Most Hated Man in America.” As a fan of Pendergrast’s 1995 book, “Victims of Memory,” which tackled the phenomenon of “repressed memories” of sexual abuse before it was widely discredited, I was extremely skeptical when I learned about his new subject.
Having read “The Most Hated Man,” I am willing to say the Sandusky story deserves a new look by the media. But the book’s relevance goes beyond this specific case: It sounds a timely warning about the importance of looking past moral panics and established narratives.
In the Sandusky case, we all have heard that an assistant coach and Penn State graduate student saw Sandusky sodomizing a boy in the shower nearly 10 years before the coach’s 2011 arrest, and that student’s attempts to report it went unheeded. What’s far less known is that, while the assistant coach was suspicious, he was not sure what he had seen. He heard slapping sounds and interpreted them as sexual. But the young man later identified as the boy in that incident repeatedly denied that he was molested by Sandusky and told investigators they were simply snapping towels at each other.
In 2008, the mother of a teen mentored by Sandusky as part of his charity became suspicious of Sandusky’s relationship with her son. Four years later, Sandusky was convicted of abusing him and seven others. The evidence as related by the victims seems overwhelming.
And yet Pendergrast, who examined the records, lays out a surprisingly strong case that all the accounts were elicited in therapy from subjects who initially denied any misconduct by Sandusky and then gradually recalled more and more severe abuse. (Unfortunately, Pendergrast was only able to interview one of these young men.) In his view, the Sandusky case relied on recovered memories, even if that term was not used by the authorities — and was further driven by intense, uncritical media coverage.
Is Sandusky, now 74, a crafty pedophile who used his mentorship to groom and abuse vulnerable boys? Or is he, as Pendergrast has come to believe, a genuinely kind, naive man who never thought that affectionate physical contact with boys could be construed as sexual?
So far, Pennsylvania’s higher courts have denied Sandusky’s appeals; Pendergrast believes that the state’s elected appellate judges are too afraid of the voters’ wrath and that Sandusky might get relief from the federal courts.
In the meantime, the belief in Sandusky’s guilt is so strong that no mainstream publisher would take on “The Most Hated Man in America,” despite an endorsement from renowned psychologist Elizabeth Loftus.
The questions raised by Pendergrast deserve a public airing and good answers. Let’s not forget that at one point, no one doubted the guilt of the “Central Park five,” the teenage boys convicted of raping a jogger. Now, it’s those who believe in their guilt who are seen as oddball “truthers.”
It’s something to remember in the age of #MeToo. It’s also something to remember when looking back at the Sandusky story.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.