Penn & Penn State: A Tale of Two Sex-Abuse Cover-Ups
It’s the tale of a powerful figure at an esteemed Pennsylvania university who led a secret life as the destroyer of young boys, despite officials and colleagues who were aware he’d been suspected of pedophilia. It’s the story of disgraced Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky. And, years before the grand jury investigation into Sandusky’s alleged abuse began, it was also the story of University of Pennsylvania marketing professor Scott Ward.
The eerie similarities between the lives of these two men read like a child molester’s playbook. Ward established a non-profit organization for disadvantaged youth and used it to bring vulnerable boys close to him. There were rooms in his house where children would sleep over, rooms where Ward would do things that no adult should ever do. He lavished gifts upon them. He took them on trips to places that made those kids feel special and so far away from the troubled lives they led before they met him. Coach Sandusky followed the same game plan.
Both men also wriggled out of what seemed to be a straight-jacket tight criminal case against them. In 1993, five years before the failed first police investigation into Sandusky’s behavior, the Montgomery County district attorney’s office set up a sting to catch Ward in the act. Then-Deputy D.A. Bruce Castor sat in a van up the street from Ward’s house, listening on a wire as Ward told an undercover cop posing as a teenager that he liked sex. The professor invited him to spend the night. Police arrested Ward that night and found some curious items in his office, including a book titled It’s Okay to Say Yes—Close Encounters in the Third World, the Adventures and Misadventures of a Well-Traveled Boy Lover. There was also an unsigned letter tucked inside a Time article about Russian child prostitutes that read:
… I wanted to send you the enclosed article from Time magazine. It is VERY bad news because it raises the consciousness of people about what we like—sort of puts it on the agenda. I can’t believe the Russian idiot let himself be the subject of this article.
Ward found himself the target of two trials, one resulting from the sting, and another from the accusations of a boy he abused. Thanks largely to doubts about the victim’s credibility—Ward knew how to pick kids who would either look bad on a witness stand or never speak up—and a botched recording of the undercover cop’s wire, Ward walked away with two misdemeanors. His sentence in 1999 was five years of probation and a fine that equaled two hours of his consulting work with prominent Fortune 500 companies. The judge, Gerald Corso, said at sentencing, “I would say this [behavior] is not likely to recur.”
The parallels between Ward and Sandusky carry over into the way their universities responded. After he was placed on probation, Penn continued to bankroll Ward’s teaching trips to its satellite school in Bangkok, a notorious hotbed of child prostitution. One of Ward’s Wharton colleagues stood as a character witness in his trial. In 2002, Ward was accused of molestation again, this time in a lawsuit against a halfway house for teens outside Boston where he once worked; four years later, Ward accepted emeritus status from the university. It wasn’t until Ward’s arrest at Dulles International Airport in 2006 that Penn severed ties with him completely. Among the evidence against him—pornographic DVDs starring Ward and a teenage boy that he’d mailed to his office at Wharton. Save for the discovery of photos and videos, Penn State’s treatment of Sandusky was nearly identical: After multiple accusations of child abuse, the school gave him emeritus status and an office; his colleagues either defended him, or worse, ignored their instincts; and it wasn’t until the day he was arrested that Sandusky was cast aside.
Much has changed in society since that Time article was published in 1993 and pedophiles were concerned about their sick secrets going public—namely Megan’s Law and an overwhelming cultural awareness about child sexual abuse that followed its passage. But just when you think fears about child predators may have crossed over into paranoia—smartphone apps that locate sex criminals in your neighborhood could drive any rational parent crazy—along comes Jerry Sandusky. It’s encouraging to see the outrage that followed his arrest. Aside from finding bodies in Joe Paterno’s backyard, perhaps no other controversy could have led to his dismissal and the likely house-cleaning of the Penn State football program that enabled Sandusky’s abuses for years.
Yet some things haven’t changed at all. High-profile universities with sterling reputations still hope that problems like these will fade away. Red flags are still ignored. Bucks are still passed. When the Sandusky news broke, it was a surprise to nearly everyone, locally and across the country, that a storied program like Penn State football could have housed a pedophile for so long. Substitute “sports” for “business,” though, and the same saga had already played out at Wharton not long ago. It wasn’t until a horror story like Sandusky’s overlapped with football and an iconic head coach that we all took notice.
There’s something else that’s still the same. Child rapists like Ward know that the very mention of the word “pedophile” makes most folks uncomfortable, sometimes so much so that they’d prefer to look away. They create lives built on lies, using their economic means and status in the community to feed their desires, while at the same time shielding themselves from the same scrutiny we’d level on the schoolyard flasher, or the creepy high-school dropout who lives in his mother’s basement. They know that when reputations larger than their own are at stake—be it that of a school, or a business, or a church—they’ll likely find a way to stay hidden in the shadows.
Like Sandusky, Ward initially pleaded not guilty, but those photos and DVDs finally put him in jail. Without similar evidence against Sandusky, the burden falls to his victims, who must summon the strength to testify against him, despite all they’ve endured. May they find courage in knowing that through their words, they’re saving other kids in a way that two great institutions, and the adults who lead them, never did.