Sandusky scandal intertwined with economic disparities

Posted: June 12, 2012

At the Centre County line, two worlds collide.

Inside, the Pennsylvania State University economic juggernaut has attracted thousands of students, a highly educated workforce, and billions of dollars. But beyond that county boundary, little of that prosperity has bled over. Storefronts lie vacant. Unemployment is high. And the local economy struggles.

On Monday, those two worlds will meet in a Bellefonte, Pa., courtroom as testimony in the child sex abuse trial of Jerry Sandusky begins.

It is impossible to fully understand the allegations against the former Penn State assistant football coach without delving into the economic disparities that made his purported victims vulnerable.

Those disparities are also likely to prove central to Sandusky's defense.

A judicial gag order bars many of the central figures from commenting on the case outside court.

But in an interview last year, Sandusky's attorney Joseph Amendola said: "I can think of nine million reasons boys like these would claim to be a sex-abuse victim," he said. "What better motivation than money - the financial gain that could come from saying, 'I'm a victim'?"

Prosecutors allege that Sandusky, a local sports and philanthropic icon, groomed his victims - all culled from the Second Mile, the charity for underprivileged youth he founded in 1977.

He lavished them with gifts including computers, cross-country trips, and tickets to sporting events. He showered them with attention. Many, who grew up in single-parent households, would later describe Sandusky as a father figure.

To the young boys now known worldwide as Victims 1 through 10, Sandusky offered entrance into a world of money, success, and manhood of which they could otherwise only dream.

At first, the mother of the young man identified as Victim 1 encouraged that relationship, according to court filings. She saw Sandusky as a positive male role model for her then-12-year-old boy.

Sandusky - who volunteered as an assistant football coach at her son's high school in Clinton County - began asking her permission to take her son to nice restaurants, Eagles games in Philadelphia, and the sidelines of Penn State football practice.

It seemed worlds away from the life the boy led growing up in rural Lock Haven in a cramped public housing duplex with his mother and two siblings, his father long gone.

To others, including the boy known as Victim 4, Sandusky offered something more - a surrogate family.

He, too, received presents and vacations, including two trips with Sandusky's family to Penn State bowl games. The former coach purportedly promised the teenager a spot on Penn State's football team once he enrolled.

More meaningful than any of those material gifts, however, his attorney Benjamin Andreozzi said in an interview last year, was the role Sandusky's family played in the young man's life.

Within months of meeting the former coach, the boy, now 28, "became a fixture in the Sandusky household, sleeping overnight and accompanying Sandusky to charity functions and Penn State football games," grand jurors noted in a report released upon Sandusky's arrest.

All the while, the coach was forcing himself sexually upon the boy, Andreozzi said.

"He had a very close relationship with Mr. Sandusky," he said. "I think that's part of the reason it was initially so hard for my client to come forward. He viewed him almost as a family member."

The profile of both boys, now young men, is common in the area surrounding Centre County and Penn State.

Per-capita income is well below the state average, according to U.S. Census data. The poverty rate and number of single-parent households is higher.

In Clinton County, where Victim 1 lives, 15.5 percent of the population falls below the poverty line, compared with 12.4 percent statewide. The percentage of single-parent households is nearly twice that of neighboring Centre County.

"State College is a cultural island," said Matt McClenehen, a Centre County defense attorney. "You have some of the most intelligent, educated people in the world around Penn State. But once you leave the confines of State College, you're practically in Appalachia."

In his autobiography Touched, Sandusky said he started the Second Mile hoping to address that poverty and its effects on local youth.

And in 2010 alone, more than 73,000 children in the counties surrounding Penn State had some contact with the organization whether through its summer camps, counseling services, or foster family activities, according to the charity's annual reports.

Sandusky now finds himself defending that record. He has repeatedly denied any abuse and maintained that his charitable instinct has been twisted by a few rogue beneficiaries.

His attorney alleges his accusers colluded in hopes of bilking Sandusky, Penn State, and the Second Mile out of money.

"I had kid after kid after kid who might say I was a father figure," Sandusky told the New York Times in December. "And they just twisted that all."

Hearing those words, three years after her son first came forward, still makes Victim 1's mother's blood boil.

Sandusky's affluence, his stature in the community, his record of charity - far from making him an easy target - made coming forward all the more difficult for her son.

Though she has repeatedly denied interview requests in recent months since Sandusky's arrest, she told the Huffington Post in November that officials at her son's school initially warned her against going public, confirming his suspicions that no one would believe Sandusky had abused him.

"Jerry has a heart of gold," she recalled them saying at the time. "You really should just go home and think about what this is going to do to your son and your family if you do that."

Now, days before her son is expected to take the stand to testify, the tide of public opinion has shifted.

"We're very concerned about the alleged injustice to our young individuals," said Jeffrey Snyder, a Clinton County commissioner. "We want to make sure justice prevails."


Contact Jeremy Roebuck at 267-564-5218 or jroebuck@phillynews.com.

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