The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine


Trial by Therapy:
The Jerry Sandusky Case Revisited

“It was incredibly difficult for some of them to unearth long-buried memories of the shocking abuse they suffered at the hands of this defendant.” —Pennsylvania’s Attorney General Linda Kelly after the Sandusky guilty verdict

In June 2012, the 68-year-old Jerry Sandusky, for three decades a successful and admired assistant to Pennsylvania State University’s legendary football coach, Joe Paterno, was found guilty on 45 counts of child molestation and was remanded to prison for, effectively, the rest of his life. Sandusky was exposed as a serial pedophile on a scarcely imaginable scale, and 10 of his victims—presumably a small sample—were featured in his trial. Penn State would eventually pay $109 million (and counting) in compensation to at least 35 men who had been schoolboys at the time of their reported abuse. And presumably there were hundreds more victims. Since 1977 Sandusky had led a substantial program of his own devising for disadvantaged youth, The Second Mile, that was thought to have served him as a “candy store,” affording opportunities to “groom” neglected boys and then to have his way with them.

Jerry Sandusky around 1999 with Second Mile kids, most of whom later claimed that he abused them and received millions of dollars in settlements.

Jerry Sandusky around 1999 with Second Mile kids, most of whom later claimed that he abused them and received millions of dollars in settlements. (Photo from The Most Hated Man in America)

The Sandusky case was so mortifying that it triggered the firing of Penn State’s president, Graham Spanier, a vice president, Gary Schultz, its athletic director, Tim Curley, and the idolized Joe Paterno himself, at age 84 and after 61 years of service, for having abetted Sandusky’s crimes. Specifically, they had failed to take action after one horrific incident had been called to their notice. Paterno died of lung cancer two months after his shaming. Schultz and Curley, later indicted on felony charges, pleaded guilty to a compromise charge of child endangerment, for which they each received a two-year jail sentence (not entirely served). President Spanier protested his innocence but was convicted of the same offense and sentenced to four to 12 months of combined jail time and house arrest. (His appeal is still in process.) And in the wake of Sandusky’s own conviction, Penn State was fined $860 million and otherwise condemned and sanctioned for having placed sports mania ahead of helpless children’s welfare.

All that furor was commensurate with the depravity of Sandusky’s alleged crimes, divulged in sensational news reports after a grand jury “presentment” (summary) was released and dramatically recapitulated at the trial seven months later. A university janitor, Ronald Petrosky, testified that a fellow janitor, Jim Calhoun, had happened upon Sandusky, around the year 2000, giving oral sex to a boy in a university shower. And more directly, emotional Second Mile veterans told of having been subjected to multiple assaults. Under prosecution questioning, for example, Aaron Fisher agreed that between 2006 and 2008 he had been forced into oral copulation more than 25 times. Ryan Rittmeyer said that after initially fending off Sandusky’s advances, he gave in and repeatedly exchanged oral sex with his abuser. According to Brett Swisher Houtz, Sandusky had molested him in showers, in a sauna, and in hotel rooms, forcing him to assume “69” positions. There had been over 40 such events, Houtz reported, occurring two or three times a week. And Sabastian Paden told the grand jury of even more savage treatment.

None of those stories is as well remembered, though, as that of Mike McQueary, a former Penn State quarterback and coach who, as a graduate student at the turn of the century, had been serving as an apprentice to the coaching staff. Two factors set McQueary apart. First, by 2012 he was the only mentally competent person who claimed to have seen Sandusky in the act of molesting a boy. And second, he was the informant who had alerted Coach Paterno and thence Athletic Director Curley, Vice President Schultz, and President Spanier. “Remember that little boy in the shower,” Governor Tom Corbett admonished the governing board that was about to sack all four men. And that boy in the shower is what the American public remembers, too.

To judge from the grand jury presentment of November 2011, there was no doubt about what McQueary had observed a decade earlier. At about 9:30 on the evening of March 1, 2002, it was stated, McQueary, upon entering the locker room of Penn State’s Lasch Football Building, had heard “rhythmic slapping sounds” indicative of sexual intercourse. Sure enough, when he had peered into the communal shower area he had seen a boy, roughly 10 years old, with his hands against the wall, being sodomized by Jerry Sandusky. McQueary had been too flustered to intervene, but on the next morning he notified Paterno, assuming, mistakenly, that Paterno and higher officials would turn Sandusky in to the police.

Once the McQueary story became public knowledge, Sandusky’s conviction in the following spring was a foregone conclusion. In the aftermath, the university’s new administration rushed to make amends. In addition to paying handsome settlements to claimants, it welcomed punishments and sanctions, tightened its rules on sexual abuse, and humbly acceded to a stinging report by the former FBI director Louis Freeh, deploring the disgraced leaders’ “total and consistent disregard…for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims.” From the issuance of the $8.3 million Freeh report in July 2012 until now, that has been the received wisdom. Its truth will be memorialized in the format that modern Americans find most convincing: an HBO docudrama, in this instance featuring Al Pacino as the devious Joe Paterno.

Not quite everyone, however, has been on board. A separate four-month investigation by John Snedden, a federal agent tasked with judging whether the fired president Graham Spanier ought to be stripped of his national security clearance, found no evidence whatsoever of administrative wrongdoing. There hadn’t been a cover-up, wrote Snedden, because there had been nothing to cover up. (Snedden offered his evidence to the Freeh investigators, but they disregarded it.) And John Ziegler, a conservative talk show host and documentary filmmaker, independently reached the same conclusion as Snedden—though no one paid attention to his argument. Ziegler had been troubled by an incongruity: how could the famously ethical Paterno have brushed aside the news of pedophilic rape by his own former defensive coordinator? Ziegler began his inquiry with only Paterno’s vindication in mind, but he ended, to his surprise, by believing that Sandusky himself was blameless.

Can a sustained, comprehensive case be made for that inference? It already exists, in a book that was rejected by every major publisher and finally issued in November 2017 by the modest Sunbury Press of Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. Until now the work has been almost entirely ignored by reviewers. Yet it comes with the strong endorsement of a world-renowned psychologist and memory expert, Elizabeth Loftus, and a leading expert on coercive interrogation methods and false confessions, Richard A. Leo. If they are right, Mark Pendergrast’s 391-page The Most Hated Man in America: Jerry Sandusky and the Rush to Judgment can erase the shame of both Penn State and Sandusky, who languishes in solitary confinement, for 22 hours a day, in a maximum-security state prison.

Pendergrast is an independent scholar and science writer who has long been concerned with the psychology and disastrous consequences of falsely “recovered memory.” Like nearly all consumers of mainstream news, Pendergrast at first took the reports of Sandusky’s misdeeds at face value. But when, in 2013, he received a tip that there appeared to be a recovered memory aspect to the case, he was intrigued. After studying all pertinent documents, corresponding with Sandusky and twice visiting him, and interviewing family members, alumni of Sandusky’s Second Mile program, and other figures involved in the case, Pendergrast assembled an imposing argument against the consensus. What follows is based on detailed evidence and reasoning in The Most Hated Man in America.

From the public’s standpoint, Sandusky’s criminality was epitomized in Mike McQueary’s revolting image of the shower room copulation. But McQueary’s testimony—which, he admitted, had been reframed in his mind “many, many, many times”—had evolved in stages between his first statement to the police in November 2010 and his appearance at Sandusky’s trial in the spring of 2012. In the final version, for example, he had peered into the shower three times, not twice, and he had halted Sandusky’s assault by loudly slamming his locker door—a strangely timid means for a 26-year-old, 6'5", 220-pound athlete to have “done something about” the ongoing rape of a child. More important, McQueary’s belief that he had witnessed anal penetration wasn’t settled until quite late. At one point, in fact, he complained to Deputy District Attorney Jonelle Eshbach that she had twisted his words to make them sound more definite—but he was instructed, remarkably, to keep his mouth shut about it.

McQueary’s wavering could cause one to doubt the accuracy of his final testimony. And, as it happens, all of his late accounts departed radically from his first narration to listeners at the time. Which story, then, ought to be believed? The answer is obvious. In 2010 through 2012 McQueary was revisiting a decade-old incident that he now regarded in the light of other alarming charges against Sandusky that police and prosecutors had disclosed to him; but in the first instance he was telling people about a fresh experience. Significantly, Sandusky’s jury, which got everything else wrong, acquitted him of rape in that instance.

Here, then, is the most trustworthy variant of the story. From outside the locker room before he entered it, McQueary had heard slapping noises that sounded sexual to him. “Visualizations come to your head,” as he would later say. In the few seconds it took him to get to his locker, the noise had stopped. Curious, he looked into the shower room through a mirror and caught a glimpse of a boy. Then an arm reached out and pulled the boy back. Horrified, McQueary assumed he had narrowly missed watching a rape. But had he?

After closing his locker, McQueary had seen Jerry Sandusky walking out of the shower area, but he had made no attempt to confront him. Instead, he phoned his father, an office manager, and told him what he had heard and noticed. John McQueary asked him to come right over, and he also summoned his friend and employer, the nephrologist Jonathan Dranov. Dranov then grilled Mike, repeatedly asking him whether he had witnessed a sex act. No, he hadn’t. Considering the unlikelihood that the respected Jerry Sandusky had been living a Jekyll-Hyde existence, John McQueary and Dr. Dranov decided that no abuse had probably occurred.

So, evidently, did Mike McQueary. Several months after the shower incident, he signed up to participate in a celebrity golf tournament that bore Sandusky’s name, and he continued to associate cordially with Sandusky in later years. Could he have done so knowing that the pedophile’s depredations were going unpunished and unreported to the police?

Coach Paterno, too, when Mike consulted him, hadn’t been greatly concerned. Although the gregarious, practical joking Sandusky grated on Paterno, a lone taskmaster who never befriended his players, Paterno was sure that “Saint Sandusky,” as Sports Illustrated had called him in 1998 when honoring his charitable work, was no pervert. The venerable coach was already familiar with Sandusky’s “horsing around,” in plain sight, with boys who lacked a father’s companionship. Paterno didn’t care for it, but he didn’t regard it in a sexual light.

Given the ambiguous circumstances, Paterno did the right thing. He presented the matter to his immediate superior, Athletic Director Curley, who then conferred with Vice President Schultz and President Spanier. The three parties agreed that while Sandusky must be forbidden to bring any more Second Mile boys to campus, the shower episode had consisted of innocuous play.

The accuracy of that interpretation was confirmed by the grown-up shower boy himself, Allan Myers, who was almost 14 at the time of the incident. In May 2011, before the McQueary story went public, Myers wrote a letter defending Sandusky’s character in general terms. Then, after the grand jury presentment was made available on November 4, Myers, having recognized himself as the allegedly sodomized boy, gave a statement to an investigator for Sandusky’s defense in which he denied that anything sexual had occurred. And he added, indignantly, that the police had already been trying to bully him into alleging molestation by Sandusky. Myers’s recollection of the shower incident matched Sandusky’s own: the goings-on had consisted of friendly slap boxing and/or towel snapping, period.

McQueary’s later memory of the shower incident was so poor that he misdated it by more than a year, placing it on March 1, 2002. Later inquiry put it at February 9, 2001—but that date, too, was almost certainly wrong. It was chosen because the time of McQueary’s conversation with Joe Paterno was well established as February 10, and McQueary had testified that he met with Paterno on the day after the incident. But John Ziegler has shown, and Sandusky himself concurs, that the incident almost certainly took place on December 29, 2000.

If so, McQueary had waited more than five weeks to bring the matter up with Paterno. That would be further evidence that after conferring with his father and Dr. Dranov, McQueary was uncertain that any offense had been committed in the Lasch building. The absence of a police investigation at the time attests not to criminal negligence by Paterno, Curley, Schultz, and Spanier but to their reasonable judgment, shared by a calmed-down McQueary, that the matter was already resolved.

For a while the McQueary/Myers episode had looked like a smoking gun, until it turned out to be merely a water pistol. But the police and other authorities, though well aware of the considerations that had led Paterno and the others to deem Sandusky innocent, were undeterred. For them, McQueary’s latest memory was the most authentic. They derived their confidence from the fact that they had already been working with another accuser, Aaron Fisher, whose charges, though replete with dubious oddities, they were determined to believe.

The whole initiative against Sandusky had begun in November 2008 when Fisher, a former Second Miler whose delinquent tendencies had included a frequently rebuked penchant for lying, began at age 14 to feel that Sandusky’s attentions to him might have betrayed an aspect of perversion. Fisher had confided his worry to his mother, Dawn Daniels, who had taken advantage of Sandusky’s mentorship of her son to party hard in local bars. Until then, she had regarded Sandusky as “a real dumb jock with a heart of gold.” Now, however, she wanted to know whether he had ever molested her son.

Dawn Fisher Daniels Hennessy, the mother of Aaron Fisher

Dawn Fisher Daniels Hennessy, the mother of Aaron Fisher (“Victim 1”), posted this picture on MySpace in 2008, boasting of her inebriation in a bar. (Photo from The Most Hated Man in America)

The answer she received from her son was an unequivocal no. Aaron did hold a grudge against Sandusky, but on further questioning it transpired that the source of resentment was Sandusky’s insistence on staying in supportive contact with him after the boy had become exasperated with Second Mile moralism and positive thinking. It was his mother, now, who pursued the seduction theme. According to her next-door neighbor, Joshua Fravel, she once boasted, “I’m going to get a lawyer and make a million dollars off Jerry Sandusky.” She is also said to have told him, “I’m gonna own the motherfucker’s house.” Likewise, in Pendergrast’s words, “Aaron Fisher later allegedly told Fravel that he planned to buy a big house in the country for his mother and family….”

A 2015 photo of Aaron Fisher

A 2015 photo of Aaron Fisher, “Victim 1,” posted on Facebook. Covered with money (presumably from his Sandusky settlement), he is giving the finger to his critics. (Photo from The Most Hated Man in America)

The problem, however, was that Aaron couldn’t initially bring himself to declare that Sandusky had ever molested him. Yes, Sandusky had hugged him to “crack his back” after wrestling around, but they had both been fully clothed. That was all. Social workers in Clinton County’s Children and Youth Services urged Aaron to say more, but when he still showed reluctance, they deduced that his memory needed enhancing. And so they sent him upstairs to the psychotherapist Mike Gillum, who was, in all respects except the name, a recovered memory psychologist.

Gillum believed, as did the tutors of the mass “recovered memory” delusion in the 1980s and 1990s, that the usual response to a trauma is to “dissociate,” blocking awareness of the event in progress while nevertheless storing a repressed recollection of it in the unconscious. The therapist’s imagined task was to bring that repressed memory into consciousness and thus, in theory, to restore psychological health. Typically, a sexual abuse specialist would build trust in him- or herself while subtracting it from the alleged abuser, most often a father, stepfather, or other caretaker. As this disorienting process rendered patients more agitated and depressed, their unraveling would be offered as proof that the repressed memories were approaching the surface at last. The unraveling, anyway, was genuine. Aaron Fisher, for example, suffered panic attacks, became suicidal, and nearly killed himself in a car wreck.

As many researchers have shown, and as Mark Pendergrast himself expounds in another recent book on the subject, Memory Warp: How the Myth of Repressed Memory Arose and Refuses to Die (Upper Access, 2017), people actually tend to remember traumatic experiences quite vividly. (Has any survivor of the Holocaust, excepting those with brain damage or dementia, ever lost awareness of it?) Yet memory is also reconstructive, or framed anew with each effort of recall, and therefore it is subject to distortion in the light of subsequently acquired beliefs. To fall under the sway of a recovered memory practitioner is to acquire just such a belief, ensuring that artifactual details or a wholly invented incident will acquire the force of a real memory.

This was to be Aaron Fisher’s development under the watchful eye of Mike Gillum. The latter, noting Aaron’s nervousness in his company, classified him at once as a survivor of molestation. Gillum began spending many hours each day with the boy and making himself available by phone around the clock. He told Aaron that he would help and protect him until the memory of abuse could be safely expressed. As Fisher would later avow, “It wasn’t until I was 15 and started seeing Mike that I realized the horror.” Nor was it necessary for Aaron to tell Gillum what he thought had happened. The psychologist prided himself on guessing the truth and stating it to the boy, who would simply nod his head or say “Yes” or “No”—and “No” was clearly not an acceptable answer.

In Gillum’s view, as in that of other memory therapists, a severe trauma can be recalled only piecemeal, in anguished stages, with the result that the very latest iteration is sure to be the most accurate one. Gillum likened the process to peeling an onion. Such a model discounts the therapist’s all-important influence over the process of recall under treatment. Indeed, in the opinion of psychologists who study memory, when a “memory” keeps accreting ever more grotesque and improbable details, that is a sign that the originating event probably hadn’t occurred at all.

Having seen Aaron Fisher every day for weeks, Gillum felt frustrated when he was excluded from Aaron’s first police interrogation, which yielded meager results. After that setback, though, Gillum became in effect a tool of the prosecution, sitting in on every interview and, by his very presence, reminding Aaron of what he was expected to say.

Even so, Aaron’s compliance was always hesitant and partial. Gillum would later tell Pendergrast that it had taken him six months (actually seven) to get his patient to state in so many words that Sandusky had forced oral sex upon him—a charge that Aaron retracted when quizzed about it in the first of three grand jury appearances. The jurors, possessing no solid evidence against Sandusky, refused to hand down an indictment. In Aaron’s second appearance, he was so distraught and confused that, once again, no action was taken. And he tried to back out altogether from making the third appearance. A newly constituted grand jury had to settle for his reading a text that may have been crafted by others. Even at the trial in 2012, he could do no better than sob through rehearsed assent to statements by a prosecuting attorney.

Those statements included an assertion that Fisher had been an overnight guest in Sandusky’s house about a hundred times during the period of abuse, 2003–8. Mutual but by no means consensual fellatio had supposedly been practiced in the basement. But why had the boy returned, again and again, for more of what was traumatizing him? Had he sleepwalked through all five years? Like most false memories, Fisher’s couldn’t be reconciled with norms of plausibility. Nonetheless, his sobs on the witness stand, possibly expressing entrapment and remorse for his part in railroading Sandusky into prison, made a stronger impression on the jury than his illogic did.

Long before Sandusky’s trial, state officials had been shown that Fisher by himself, a mentally fragile teenager who kept changing his story, wasn’t going to bring Sandusky down. Before they had heard of the McQueary/Myers incident, only one other possible victim besides Fisher was known to them. In 1998 Debra McCord, the mother of a Second Mile child, 14-year-old Zachary Konstas, had been alarmed to learn that Sandusky had play-wrestled with him during another post-workout shower. She had notified the police, who investigated her claim of abuse and even performed two sting operations designed to entrap the perpetrator. But Zach Konstas himself insisted that Sandusky had merely been engaging in his usual mock-aggressive foolery.

Finding no incriminating evidence, the police had declared Debra McCord’s suspicions to be unfounded. And McCord herself must have agreed with their judgment. For the next dozen years she allowed Zach to continue attending football games with Sandusky and visiting his home. Indeed, Zach and Allan Myers, the more important if still anonymous shower boy who was now a young man, shared a dinner with Jerry and Dottie Sandusky as late as July 2011.

Dottie Sandusky at Christmas 2010.

Dottie Sandusky at Christmas 2010. After she defended her husband in a 2014 appearance on the Today show, viewers wrote that she was a “hag,” a “sicko,” a “rapist,” and that she deserved the death penalty. (Photo from The Most Hated Man in America)

To an objective observer, the terminated Konstas episode would have held no forensic interest. But Deputy District Attorney Eshbach and memory therapist Gillum were not objective observers. Because Eshbach never doubted that Sandusky was a serial molester, she hoped to lure Konstas into joining Aaron Fisher as a self-announced victim. And she decided to cast a wide dragnet for further victims, ordering troopers to interrogate every Second Mile veteran they could find who had had personal dealings with the founder.

Ironically, the sleuths were aided in that task by Sandusky’s upbeat autobiography of 2000, unselfconsciously titled Touched (!). It contained photographs of the beaming suspect with his arms draped around easily identifiable prepubescent boys. In that book, by the way, Sandusky had written about “reaching out” to boys and “having fun” in “wrestling” with them. As Pendergrast asks, would a child molester be likely to have allowed such a work to see print?

Eshbach’s agents told each respondent, falsely, that quite a few other young men had already volunteered narratives of molestation by Sandusky—so shouldn’t they, too, reveal what had been done to them? The overwhelming majority of some 600 ex-Second Milers, however, gave versions of the same disappointing answer. Yes, Sandusky had tickled them, squeezed their knees, cracked their backs, or even kissed them on the forehead at age 10 or 11; but this hadn’t been grooming for later assaults. It had simply expressed affectionate comradeship from a father figure. For many of these 20-somethings Sandusky had remained a hero, a man of spotless character who had once spared them from wretchedness and then, in their troubled adolescence, steered them toward responsible adulthood by providing advice and incentives for good schoolwork and clean living.

The interviewees’ recurrent mention of Sandusky’s moral counsel ought to have signaled caution to the district attorney. Some recalcitrant Second Milers had spurned their former mentor and plunged into early experimentation with alcohol, drugs, and sex. For them, Sandusky’s redoubled exhortations to virtue had rendered him an annoyance. If he had ever molested them, they would surely have fired back against such gross inconsistency. (“Who are you, a rapist of children, to be lecturing me?”) Yet no one, not even Sandusky’s most florid accusers, ever seems to have called him a hypocrite.

Among so many young men drawn in by the dragnet, however, there were bound to be a few who, in bad financial straits that were sometimes worsened by criminal records, caught the scent of money. Aaron Fisher’s mother, we recall, may have glimpsed that benefit from the start. Without explicitly saying so, Eshbach and police investigators implied that testimony against the abuser could lead to riches. Nor would the young men necessarily have to perjure themselves on the witness stand. If they would merely entertain the hypothesis that they had been violated by Sandusky many years before, when their sexual ignorance had prevented them from registering the offense, then Mike Gillum or other therapists, such as State College’s Cynthia MacNab, could assist them in bringing their “compartmentalized” memories to the surface.

By the time of the trial, Aaron Fisher and Zach Konstas were ready to denounce Sandusky—for Konstas, too, must have “flipped” under therapeutic pressure, now maintaining that the pedophile had been grooming him for future abuse. As a result of their recruiting, the authorities also had four new “victims” in tow, plus two more who belatedly responded to a hotline number that was established after the media had pounced on the Sandusky scandal. Thanks to the hotline, previously unknown parties could simply phone in to stake a claim. Then, too, there was Mike McQueary, who had finally convinced himself, on the basis of others’ charges, that he had actually witnessed a homosexual rape. And with the janitor Ronald Petrosky ready to report about another one, the prosecutors’ case was finally looking strong.

The appearance of strength, however, isn’t the same thing as proof, and dozens of false memories are no better than one. Let us review the claims of each accuser, as Pendergrast does more fully in The Most Hated Man in America.

1. Mike McQueary/Allan Myers. As we have seen, McQueary witnessed no sexual activity in the shower, and Myers confirmed that nothing untoward had been going on. Myers’s later intention to testify in Sandusky’s behalf should have put the question to rest.

2. Zachary Konstas told both his mother and the police that he and Sandusky had indulged in harmless horseplay in 1998. There is no reason to believe otherwise. In 2009, as a 23-year-old, Konstas messaged, “Hey Jerry just want 2 wish u a Happy Fathers Day! Greater things are yet 2 come!” And later that year he wrote, “Happy Thanksgiving bro! I’m glad God has placed U in my life. Ur an awesome friend!” Konstas’s “flipping,” just before the trial, may have resulted from some combination of opportunism, psychotherapy (which he did undergo), and surrender to a general moral panic.

3. Aaron Fisher. The “victim” who set the Penn State tragedy in motion was egged on by his mother and then by the memory diver Mike Gillum. We have seen that in a number of ways, straight through the trial, Fisher manifested a reluctance to accuse Sandusky of misdeeds that he could never clearly bring to mind. And his friendly association with Sandusky throughout the five years of alleged abuse argues strongly against the likelihood that any abuse occurred.

4. Dustin Struble (b. 1984) recalled the Second Mile program with unmixed gratitude in 2004. That was when he wrote on a scholarship application, “Jerry Sandusky, he has helped me understand so much about myself. He is such a kind and caring gentleman, and I will never forget him.” More recently, when Pendergrast asked Struble what he would have said about Sandusky in 2010, he replied, “I would have said I went to games with him and that we were friends.” Indeed, tailgate parties with the Sanduskys had been a regular feature of his life for 14 years, until he was 25.

Nevertheless, when the McQueary scandal broke in 2011, Struble wondered whether Sandusky’s typically hands-on encounters with him could have included a sexual component. In February 2011 he told investigators that he was entering psychotherapy, presumably in order to dredge up repressed memories. Still, on April 11 of the same year, he assured the grand jury that, so far as he could recall, Sandusky had never once touched him inappropriately.

But around that time, Struble began comparing notes with his fellow memory patient Zach Konstas. Before long he signed a contingency fee agreement with a local attorney, Andrew Shubin. Obviously, then, the lawyer and his client were looking forward to splitting a possible settlement for psychological harm. Struble met with Shubin 10 to 15 times before the trial, and he entered therapy with Cindy MacNab to find hidden memories of abuse.

Soon thereafter, Struble’s story drastically changed. Sandusky, he claimed, had touched his penis in a car and had nestled against him erotically in a shower. Asked in cross examination why he hadn’t disclosed those events in earlier testimony, he replied in recovered memory psychobabble: “That doorway that I had closed has since been reopening more.” And in a 2014 email to Pendergrast, Struble wrote: “Actually both of my therapists have suggested that I have repressed memories, and that’s why we have been working on looking back on my life for triggers. My therapist has suggested that I still may have more repressed memories that have yet to be revealed, and this could be a big cause of the depression that I still carry today.”

5. Michal Kajak (b. 1988), a friend of both Struble’s and Zach Konstas’s, said nothing to investigators until well after the Sandusky uproar had become headline news. Then, on June 7, 2011, he alleged that Sandusky had once seized his hand and placed it on his (Sandusky’s) erect penis. When had this happened? At first Kajak located the offense in the fall of 1998, before he and Sandusky had even met. Later he changed the date to August 2001. No, he corrected himself again, it had been sometime in 2002, in Penn State’s Lasch Football building. But by then Sandusky was complying with former Athletic Director Curley’s ban on bringing any Second Mile boys onto the campus; so this date, like the first one, is unbelievable.

By moving the incident’s occurrence to 2001 or 2002, Kajak and his attorney were placing it “post-McQueary”—that is, at a time when the Penn State administration would be vulnerable to the highest damages for having neglected to turn Sandusky in to the police. And indeed, Kajak’s final version would be worth millions to him and his lawyer. But had any misbehavior ever taken place? Like all of the other supposed victims, Kajak had never mentioned it to anyone and had gone right on cordially fraternizing with his presumptive abuser.

6. In July 2011 Jason Simcisko (b. 1987) was questioned by two policemen whom he told, in the words they quoted,

I lost touch with [Sandusky] around the time I went into tenth grade. I was in trouble a lot then: in and out of foster homes and stuff. He made me feel special, giving me stuff and spending time with me. I just always took it that he was trying to make sure I kept out of trouble. I don’t believe any of this stuff is true and hope that he’s found not guilty.

But a month later Simcisko had taken on Dustin Struble’s contingency fee lawyer, Andrew Shubin, and had changed his tune. Now, it seems, he had spent some 20 overnights in the Sandusky home and had been subjected to numerous genital rubbings. By the time of the trial, 20 visits had grown to 50, and Sandusky’s touching of his penis had occurred nearly every time. Once again, recovered memory was invoked. When challenged about inconsistency with earlier statements, Simcisko responded, “I tried to block this out of my brain for years.”

7. Brett Houtz (b. 1983) was a rebellious adolescent—by all accounts a habitual liar and manipulator who neglected school, dropped out of sports, used drugs, stole a car, and got sexually involved with a young girl. Sandusky had taken him on as an especially challenging project, but by 16 Houtz was fed up with Sandusky’s preachy messages, some of which would be introduced in the trial as grooming “love letters.”

Abuse became an issue for Brett Houtz only after the press sensation that began on March 31, 2011. Reading of the charges against Sandusky, Houtz’s biological father got in touch with him and proposed that he retain a lawyer and get in on the action. Houtz’s immediate retort was that he wanted nothing to do with the case. On reconsideration, though, he retained Benjamin Andreozzi, the lawyer his father had contacted, who would end by serving lucratively as the attorney for 10 claimants against Penn State.

Even then, Houtz refused at first to enter charges against Sandusky. Afterwards, two police officers drew him out, with attorney Andreozzi present, in the only interview with a Second Miler that was ever tape recorded. The tape could serve as a classic lesson in biased interrogation. From the beginning, the idea was to get Houtz’s recollections into alignment with those of other accusers; and the questioners, with the attorney’s collusion, didn’t relent until they had done so.

Houtz’s eventual testimony, which was so graphic that it served as the opener in the prosecution’s horror show, may not have been entirely disingenuous. He had entered psychological counseling soon after retaining Andreozzi, and at some point he, too, had come under the care of recovered memory guru Mike Gillum. As he told the jury, “I have spent, you know, so many years burying this in the back of my mind forever.” Pendergrast thinks Houtz may also have been the Second Miler who underwent 30 trauma sessions with a recovered memory advocacy group called Let Go Let Peace Come In.

Like other putative Sandusky victims, Houtz ramped up his charges between the grand jury and the trial. At first his questioners had had to coax him before he would say that he had ever experienced oral sex with Sandusky. In the trial, though, he was ready to declare that he had been molested at least 50 times, with Sandusky often forcibly jamming his penis into his mouth.

The events that Houtz narrated bore the usual marks of recovered memory craziness. In his recollection, he had been playing basketball or racquetball with Sandusky nearly every evening during the 1997 football season and preseason, when the coach’s all-consuming duties barely allowed him enough time to come home for dinner. No less bizarre was his assertion that the puritanical Sandusky, who had never been known to smoke, consume alcohol, or utter a swear word, used to buy cigarettes for the teenager and once drove him to a drug dealer and gave him $50 to buy marijuana, which he smoked in Sandusky’s car.

Above all, Houtz was stumped by the same paradoxes that no accuser would be able to resolve. Why, once having been assaulted by a monstrous villain, had he kept returning to be raped again? Why had he informed no one at all about his ongoing torture? And why hadn’t his opinion of Sandusky, already mixed because of the latter’s moralizing, drastically worsened? At age 26, in the year before turning on his benefactor, Houtz had brought his girlfriend and three-year-old son for a happy visit with the Sanduskys, as if there had never been a cause for complaint. That fact speaks louder than anything he would say in court.

8. Sabastian Paden (b. 1993) was a senior in high school when, on November 5, 2011, his mother saw the televised news of Sandusky’s arrest and learned that Pennsylvania’s new attorney general, Linda Kelly, had established a hotline soliciting more victims to declare themselves. At once the mother asked someone at her son’s school to call the hotline. But she hadn’t consulted Sabastian himself, and so, when the police soon knocked on his door, his answers to their queries were unrehearsed. He informed them without hesitation that Sandusky had done nothing to him in a sexual way.

Very soon thereafter, though, with or without therapeutic prodding, Paden began telling the grand jury dreamlike tales about Sandusky’s outrages. During the period of his abuse, he testified, he had crossed the Sandusky threshold about 150 times, seemingly powerless to stay away. Although we know that Second Mile kids often came around to play games in the basement, they were all conveniently absent on the many days of Paden’s abuse, leaving the rapist free to work his mischief unobserved.

In one instance Sandusky had allegedly lured Sabastian home after school, locked him in the basement (whose lock was on the inside), and kept him there for three days while depriving him of food and repeatedly assaulting him orally and anally. At the time, Paden testified, Dottie Sandusky was on the first floor of the small, unsoundproofed house, but Sabastian’s loud screams of pain and terror were ignored. Dottie, then, must have been a fiendish accomplice to rape. But for anyone who knew her—a loving mother, a churchgoing Methodist, and a stern enforcer of household rules who was nicknamed “Sarge”—this was the most preposterous fantasy of all.

9. Ryan Rittmeyer (b. 1988) had attended a Second Mile camp, but neither Jerry nor Dottie Sandusky could recall ever having met him. He hadn’t turned out well, having been incarcerated for burglary in 2004 and again in 2007 for having robbed, beaten, and permanently injured an elderly man. He was probably hard up for money when the Sandusky hotline posed an opportunity for sudden improvement in his fortunes.

Unlike the accusers who had felt Sandusky’s kindness and may have suffered pangs of conscience about betraying him, Rittmeyer wholeheartedly embraced the role of prosecution witness. He had seen Sandusky once or twice a month, he stated, through 1997, 1998, and part of 1999, and on nearly every occasion the man had made sexual contact with him. At last, supposedly, they had begun to take turns committing fellatio.

Rittmeyer’s story, fitting the general pattern, was a tissue of physical, temporal, and motivational absurdities. But the jury, without having been shown that Sandusky and Rittmeyer were even acquainted, found it compelling. Indeed, the jurors believed all eight of the Second Mile veterans who testified—forming, collectively, a portrait of a man with little time to do anything but scurry from one unreported molestation to the next. Even Aaron Fisher and Sabastian Paden would have had to take turns getting ravaged in Sandusky’s basement, as their supposed ordeals there overlapped between 2005 and 2008.

10. Ronald Petrosky was the Penn State janitor who told the Sandusky jury what he thought Jim Calhoun, another janitor, had revealed to him one night in 2000, 12 years before. Calhoun himself couldn’t testify; in June 2012 he was suffering from dementia. But Petrosky testified on his behalf, even reproducing what he imagined to be Calhoun’s thought process from long before. His recollection, though it wavered and contained some odd features, impressed the jury as the crowning proof of Sandusky’s guilt. That it was hearsay at a 12-year remove didn’t matter to the judge, who admitted it into testimony on the novel ground that it was consistent with the other unproven charges in the case.

Apparently, something awful had indeed occurred one night in 2000. Calhoun had seen a man licking an older boy’s genitals in the Lasch building’s shower area. Unnerved, he had communicated his alarm to Ronald Petrosky. More than a decade later, when the mounting charges against Sandusky were dominating the news, Petrosky evoked that incident, which neither he nor Calhoun had reported at the time. Nor, curiously, had Petrosky ever mentioned it to anyone else. Now he seemed to remember that Calhoun had identified the perpetrator as Sandusky and that he, Petrosky, had caught sight of Sandusky and the boy exiting the locker room together. Further, he thought he recalled having noticed Sandusky driving slowly around the building’s parking lot later that night and again around 2 a.m.

Months before the trial, Petrosky’s story had figured, albeit erroneously, in an influential televised exchange between Sandusky and the sportscaster Bob Costas:

Costas: A janitor said that he saw you performing oral sex on a boy in the showers in the Penn State locker facility. Did that happen?

Sandusky: No.

Costas: How could somebody think they saw you do something as extreme and shocking as that, when it hadn’t occurred, and what would possibly be their motivation to fabricate it?

Sandusky: You would have to ask them.

Sandusky’s terse, bland responses damned him in the eyes of future jurors and the public. No one pointed out that the janitor in question, Petrosky, had not in fact observed any activity in the Lasch building’s shower room.

The man who did witness a crime, Jim Calhoun, had been interviewed by state trooper Robrt Yakikic on May 15, 2011, when his Alzheimer’s was still at an early stage. Asked what he thought of Sandusky, Calhoun had brightened and said he was “a pretty good guy.” Did Calhoun recall the shower incident? Absolutely, and he felt that even now he would recognize the dastardly abuser if he encountered him. Was it Sandusky? Calhoun answered at once, “No, I don’t believe it was.” An incredulous Yakikic asked, “You don’t?” Calhoun became more emphatic: “I don’t believe it was. I don’t think Sandusky was the person. It wasn’t him. There’s no way. Sandusky never did anything at all that I can see.” The exculpating tape was in the possession of Sandusky’s lead attorney, Joe Amendola—who, however, lacking time for adequate preparation, made no use of it.

The Sandusky trial, described in detail by Pendergrast, proved to be a perfect storm of juror prejudice, prosecutorial malfeasance, incompetent and perfunctory defense, judicial bias, and unlucky circumstances. Among the latter was the fact that Mike McQueary’s “little boy in the shower,” Allan Myers, who had been planning to attest to Sandusky’s innocence, saw dollar signs and, joining forces with the claims lawyer Andrew Shubin, apparently maintained (out of court) that Sandusky had molested him after all. That decision may have cost him his conscience but it gained him financial security, thanks to the munificence of the new, ask-no-questions administration of Penn State.

Again, Sandusky had been counting on the last of his six adopted children, Matt (né Heichel), to vouch for him at the trial, as he had already done in the face of nagging interrogation. The Christian activists Jerry and Dottie Sandusky had welcomed Matt into their home because he was continually getting into trouble, which eventually included theft, arson, and exposing himself on multiple occasions to the family’s only daughter. Jerry had kept bailing Matt out and lecturing him about the good life. He even got him to sign a contract whereby improved behavior would be repaid with funds—Jerry’s own money—for a college education.

Matt Sandusky with children and Jerry Sandusky from the Sandusky family 2010 Christmas booklet.

Matt Sandusky with children and Jerry Sandusky from the Sandusky family 2010 Christmas booklet. The following year, Matt testified that his father has never abused him before the grand jury, but he “flipped” in 2012 to accuse his father on the basis of recovered memories. (Photo from The Most Hated Man in America)

Jerry’s refusal to be discouraged by Matt’s lapses seemed to be vindicated by a turnaround in the young man’s deportment, and Matt was grateful for such steadfastness. In 1998 he told Sports Illustrated,

My life changed when I came here to live [in the Sandusky household]. There were rules, there was discipline, there was caring. Dad put me on a workout program. He gave me someone to talk to, a father figure I never had. I have no idea where I’d be without him and Mom. I don’t even want to think about it. And they’ve helped so many kids besides me.

But the negative pattern resumed. Matt dropped out of Penn State, got in further trouble, married and divorced after fathering three children, and then moved back in for a year with his adoptive parents—an unthinkable decision if he had ever been molested by Jerry. It isn’t surprising, but it is telling, that he swore under oath to the grand jury that no such molestation had happened.

Right up until the middle of the trial, Matt was looking forward to delivering a strong tribute to Jerry. But psychologically he was in a bad way, obsessed with a nonexistent odor in the family basement and hearing voices calling his name. When he attended to Brett Houtz’s colorful testimony, something snapped. Now he wondered whether abuse by Jerry, though unremembered, had been the source of his many problems in life.

Evidently, Matt had already been in the care of a psychotherapist. Now, under the guidance of lawyer Shubin, he went to the police and reported that a recollection of Jerry’s assaults was beginning to take shape in his mind. The weird sex acts that he subsequently “recovered” sounded like characteristic products of therapeutic prodding. As he later explained, “My child self was holding onto what had happened to me,” so that at first “I didn’t have these memories of the sexual abuse.”

The “flipping” of both Allan Myers and Matt Sandusky was a disaster for the already hapless defense team. Not only could the two young men not be called upon to testify; Jerry himself was dissuaded from taking the stand, lest Matt then be summoned by the prosecution to add an exclamation point to its ghoulish case. And so the jurors never got to compare the real Jerry Sandusky with the bogeyman conjured by his adversaries.

Long before Sandusky faced the justice system, he had been thoroughly demonized in the press. The journalist Sara Ganim, profiting from grand jury leaks by the district attorney’s office, would win a Pulitzer prize for articles bearing such unequivocal titles as “Former Coach Jerry Sandusky Used Charity to Molest Kids.” And once Sandusky’s wickedness had been engraved on the public mind, everything about him was twisted to fit a predator profile.

In reality, the extraverted but high-principled Sandusky didn’t fit any model of deviance. No doubts about his sexual orientation or conduct were raised before he was 54 years old. No pornography was found on his computer. Disapproving of sex out of wedlock, he had been happily married to his only spouse since 1966. His domestic lovemaking, he and Dottie separately attested, was conventional in frequency and nature. He was disgusted by the idea of anal or oral copulation. His testosterone level was abnormally low. And if Jerry had been an unscrupulous homosexual pedophile, his adopted boys would have been prime targets; but until Matt became afflicted with pseudomemories, all five of them considered the charge to be outlandish.

Had Sandusky testified, he could have explained the aspects of his behavior that some parents and even some children found “creepy.” He had spent much of his youth living on the second floor of a recreation center managed by his father, himself a charitable man who cared about helping underprivileged children. Jerry had wanted to emulate him in every way. In Art Sandusky’s facility, communal showers and prankish romping after exercise had been routine. The roughhousing had been play, but it had also offered a heartening, asexual token of solidarity between athletically inclined men and boys. Even Jerry’s most unsettling practice, squeezing the knees of a boy passenger in a car, was inherited from his father. It meant something like “Don’t forget that you can rely on my support.” As Jerry’s son Jon, now Director of Player Personnel for the Cleveland Browns, has commented,

[My father’s] whole picture of the world was stuck in the 1950s and 1960s, with no concept of what was politically correct or what is taboo nowadays…. To him, horsing around in the shower, snapping towels or throwing soap wasn’t out of the realm of normality…. But people’s view of the world is different now…. I don’t think he really understood that.

And Jon added, “My parents gave me morals. They taught me how to live my life, with a work ethic but mixing in pleasure too…. They were well-rounded parents. They modeled things I’m striving to be as a parent myself.”

Many factors contributed to the Sandusky debacle: a prurient misconstruction of well-meant deeds; excessive zeal by officials, police, social workers, and therapists; scandal mongering by the media that preempted the judicial process; the greed of abuse claimants and their lawyers; and a political vendetta against Penn State’s President Spanier by then Governor Tom Corbett. But the main ingredient in the witches’ brew, the one that rendered it most toxic, was something else: bogus psychological theory.

The indefinite and unsupported concepts of dissociation and repression, wielded without allowance for the distorting effects of suggestion and autosuggestion, lent forensic weight to nightmarish scenes that were “retrieved” in a climate of fright. Without that bad science, imparted first by therapy (Fisher) and then by social contagion (McQueary), there would have been no case at all against Sandusky. Attorney General Linda Kelly acknowledged as much in her triumphant press conference following the conviction. She praised the accusers for their courage and persistence in struggling toward a negation of their original statements to authorities. “It was incredibly difficult,” she proclaimed, “for some of them to unearth long-buried memories of the shocking abuse they suffered at the hands of this defendant.”

With The Most Hated Man in America and its companion volume, Memory Warp, Mark Pendergrast has demonstrated that the obituaries of our lamentable recovered memory movement were premature. Its virulent misconceptions, originally propagated by ideologues and ignorant psychotherapists, will surely continue to wreak havoc. Forewarned is forearmed. But who, meanwhile, will restore Jerry Sandusky’s liberty and good name? And when will the stain of criminality be erased from Tim Curley, Gary Schultz, Graham Spanier, and the late Joe Paterno? As Charles Mackay wrote in his 1852 Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, men “go mad in herds, while they only recover their sense slowly, and one by one.”

About the Author

Frederick Crews is Professor Emeritus of English at the University of California, Berkeley. His latest book is Freud: The Making of an Illusion. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Other Resources we have on Topic of Recovered Memories
  1. False Memory Syndrome and the Recovered Memory Movement
    (lecture on DVD), by Dr. John Hochman
  2. “Recovered Memory Therapy & False Memory Syndrome”
    (in Skeptic magazine 2.3)
  3. The Memory Wars: Recovered v. False Memories
    (lecture on DVD), by Dr. Pamela Freyd & Eleanor Goldstein
  4. “First of All, Do No Harm: A Recovered Memory Therapist Recants —
    An Interview with Robin Newsome,” by Mark Pendergrast
    (in Skeptic magazine 3.4)
  5. Junior Skeptic # 25: “Alien Abductions (Part 2),” by Daniel Loxton
    (bound within Skeptic magazine 12.4)
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