This week's New Yorker brings a new retelling of the Jerry Sandusky story, this one from pop-think guru Malcolm Gladwell. In his usual this-thing-explains-that-thing mode, Gladwell cites case histories of two other prominent pedophiles, using those stories to explain how Penn State failed to act on what appears, in hindsight, to have been obvious, ongoing child abuse.
Child molesters, Gladwell writes, are good at deceiving other adults:
The pedophile is often imagined as the dishevelled old man baldly offering candy to preschoolers. But the truth is that most of the time we have no clue what we are dealing with.
That's fine. Gladwell is right that Jerry Sandusky had a public persona that could fool anyone. He was a successful defensive coordinator, the man who made Penn State into Linebacker U. He was the trusted lieutenant of Joe Paterno, famous for his own rectitude. And Sandusky had founded a charity to help underprivileged youth. Why would anyone suspect he was a monster?
But Penn State officials were dealing with more than first impressions. And to try to fit the Sandusky case into his story of how regular people are manipulated by molesters, Gladwell leaves out a number of facts that indicated that Penn State officials seemed to understand what they were dealing with.
So Gladwell frequently refers to the case of Jeffrey Clay, a well-liked Canadian elementary school teacher who repeatedly made angry denials about his behavior while allegations about him continued to surface. Unlike Clay, though, Sandusky was the subject of more than rumors. [Correction: There was a police investigation of Clay, but the case fell apart in part because some of the boys interviewed by police denied he had touched them.] His actions were investigated by police and by the state Department of Public Welfare, back in 1998.
Here's Gladwell's account of Sandusky's visit with the mother of a boy he'd showered with—a conversation that happened while Penn State police detective Ronald Schreffler and another detective listened in from the next room:
Put yourself in the mind of the detective hiding in the house. Schreffler was there to gather evidence of sexual abuse. But there was no evidence of sexual abuse. Sandusky didn't rape the boy in the shower. That was something that might come only after several weeks, if not months. He gave the boy an exploratory bear hug. Now he was back at the boy's home. But he didn't seem like an aggressive predator. He was carefully soliciting the mother's opinion and apologizing, with all his considerable charm. "I wish I were dead," he says to the mother. Is that an admission of guilt? Or is Sandusky saying how mortified he is that he—savior of young boys—could possibly have alienated a child and his mother? Sandusky had been caught in the subtle, early maneuvers of victim selection, and what Schreffler witnessed was Sandusky aborting his pursuit of the boy, not pressing forward. Sandusky had looked for vulnerability and hadn't found it.
This account of Schreffler's conflicted and uncertain thought processes sounds good. But Schreffler himself was sure that what he had heard was enough evidence to bring charges. He said so in December, and he said it again in June. The decision not to press charges wasn't made by the detective but by the district attorney (who has been missing since 2005).