Someone should have known. Someone should have asked.
Matthew Sandusky — adopted son of convicted sexual predator and former Penn State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky — said someone should have intervened.
“The No. 1 thing that people should have noticed was the extreme change in who I was as a child,” Sandusky told The Gazette ahead of his keynote address for Riverview Center’s 2019 Luncheon of Light on May 8 at Elmcrest Country Club in Cedar Rapids.
Matthew Sandusky is the founder and executive director of the Peaceful Hearts Foundation, which seeks to eliminate childhood sexual abuse through public awareness, educational programs and legislative action. He also will speak in Cedar Falls and Dubuque during his visit to Iowa.
He said he is trying to let the public know “how perpetrators operate, and who the real perpetrators are. “I’m helping them identify and filter who may need help and who may be being victimized.”
He also has a message for other victims.
“They’re not alone,” he said. “Healing does happen, and they are fully in charge of anything that they want their lives to be, no matter what happened to them in their past.”
Sandusky described his childhood as tough, rampant with physical and emotional abuse. When he entered the foster care system, he encountered Jerry Sandusky as a mentor through his Second Mile charity. The coach filled voids that sat gaping and raw for the troubled youth.
“I needed someone to care about me,” Sandusky said. “I needed someone to show me attention. And when someone did that, because I was so poor of that my entire childhood, I just soaked that up like a sponge. I wanted more of it.”
Jerry Sandusky took Matthew on trips. He gave him gifts. And he did it while abusing him.
“It started with a simple conversation,” he said. “Eventually, it moved to a hand on the leg, wrestling around, blowing strawberries on the belly, showering naked together, wrestling together in the shower naked, to full on sexual victimization — a man and a young boy.”
With each step, Sandusky said, the man who would become his adoptive father broke down barriers.
“He was pushing boundaries for me and seeing what I would allow him to do,” he said.
That behavior was typical, according to Sandusky, as was his abuser’s role in his life.
“They put themselves in positions where they can have access to children,” Sandusky said. “Where they look as though they are these saviors and humanitarians of children, an only care about children. We buy that a lot.”
That “we” Sandusky mentions are the communities predators embed themselves in. They’re the communities predators groom, just like the victims they choose. In Jerry Sandusky’s case — an award-winning coach, founder of a children’s charity and an author praised by lawmakers and George H.W. Bush — the community extended far beyond State College, Pa.
“He had built up this reputation of being something that he wasn’t, and that was his grooming of society,” Sandusky said. “That was his grooming of this local community to believe something about him that gave him access to children, that allowed him to spend alone time with children. He was put up onto a pedestal, even by myself as a child because of the job he had.”
Trying to cope
As his abuse escalated, Sandusky, started drinking and doing drugs, moving to self-harm, and eventually attempted suicide.
“I was burning myself, self-harming myself to try and cope with these things because I had no one looking out for me, and I had no one to talk to,” he said.
All Sandusky wanted was for the abuse to stop. He didn’t have a plan for how that would happen, and he felt burdened with the secret — not only because Sandusky was filling a desperate void in his life, but because of the social stigma around same-sex relations.
“He’s doing these things, and I’m being forced to do things, and that’s going to be seen as gay in society,” Sandusky said. “It was just a whole bunch of shame.”
Plus, he recognized his disadvantaged position.
“Given who he was, even if I would have reported, nothing would have been done,” said Sandusky, who did try to escape.
But every time, “people pushed me right back to him.”
So he kept quiet — until others didn’t.
Testifying for the defense
In late 2011, a grand jury — convened two years earlier — indicted Jerry Sandusky on dozens of counts of sex crimes against boys. Matthew Sandusky was not among the victims who prosecutors identified in their case. In fact, Sandusky said he testified in defense of his adopted father for the grand jury — out of continued protection for himself against public shaming.
Change of heart
But that stopped when Jerry Sandusky’s public trial for 52 charges of sex crimes against children started June 11, 2012. Matthew Sandusky told The Gazette the former coach tried to persuade him to testify in his defense. Sandusky refused, and that was the last time the men spoke.
“He berated me for being stupid,” Sandusky said.
The trial was the first time Sandusky heard other victims’ stories, prompting regret.
“When realizing for the first time at 33 years old that I wasn’t alone and he had done these things to other people, I started feeling a lot of guilt,” he said, adding that therapy has helped him process those emotions.
“But, at the time, it felt like I probably could have protected them and saved them if I would have spoken up and told somebody,” he said. “It was very devastating.”
But the others’ disclosures prompted his own.
“It helps all survivors to know that you’re not alone,” he said.
“ ... There are millions of us.”