When a Judge Demands Accountability

Former Penn State president is going to jail because he refused to speak up about Jerry Sandusky’s child abuse

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On October 9, 2012, former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky leaves the Centre County Courthouse in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, after being sentenced for child sex abuse. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

On Wednesday, Graham B. Spanier, the 72-year-old former president of Penn State University, learned that he will spend two months in jail, followed by two months under house arrest with electric monitoring, and then serve two years of probation and complete 200 hours of community service. This comes four years after he was found guilty of endangering the welfare of a child in the case of Jerry Sandusky, the unrepentant assistant coach of the Penn State football team who was found guilty of 45 counts of child sex abuse and is now serving anywhere from 30 to 60 years in prison.

By various accounts, Spanier, who led Penn State for 16 years until he was forced out in 2011, had chosen to remain silent to protect the reputation of the university rather than contact the police after learning that Sandusky had been seen sexually abusing a boy in a locker room shower on campus.

At the time of his initial sentencing in 2017, before the case headed to appeals court, Spanier apologized for his failure to act on behalf of the children. “The single most important thing I can say is that I’m sorry,” said Spanier, who also talked publicly about his own experience suffering severe physical beatings by his father. “I deeply regret that I did not intervene far more carefully.”

The subsequent response of the sentencing judge, John Boccabella, deserves our reflection, for his sympathy toward both the victims and the defendants—and his duty to hold the guilty accountable, no matter what his station in life. The defendants are “good people who made a terrible mistake,” Bocabella said. “Why no one made a phone call to police is beyond me.” And then this: “This is a Shakespearean tragedy; this is a fall from grace that is both unfortunate and well-deserved.”

Since 2017, Spanier has had open heart surgery and been diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer. But despite his attorney’s protestations, Judge Boccabella was not letting him off the hook: “He made a mistake and he’s going to pay for his mistake,” he said this week. Before the judge announced his decision, Senior Deputy Attorney General Patrick Schulte worried that “victims of the defendant’s crime do not believe that he’s ever going to be held accountable for the crime he’s been convicted of.”

At a time when many of us are wondering whether we can believe there are not two systems of justice—one for those with money and power, and another for everyone else—the commitment of Boccabella offers sustenance. While elected officials continue to roam free in the nation’s Capitol, despite their participation in the January 6 insurrection, this judge’s refusal to go easy on the former university president who ignored reports of child abuse is a reason to be optimistic that justice can be served.

And then there’s the despicable Sandusky, who we can only hope will never escape a prison cell. Anyone who followed the Sandusky trial in 2012 recalls his horrendous crimes and the utter refusal to acknowledge what he had done. Angling in 2019 to get an early release from prison, the handcuffed and smiling pedophile told appeals court judge Maureen Skerda, “I apologize that I’m unable to admit remorse for something I didn’t do.” Judge Skerda rejected his plea.

Senior Deputy Attorney General Jennifer Buck noted at that time: “There’s a common theme that runs through all of this. Blaming others, failing to accept responsibility.”

Sound familiar?

I leave you with the comment of Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro:

“Today marks the end of a long road towards justice for the children endangered by Mr. Spanier’s inaction—choosing to cover up the abuse at the hands of Jerry Sandusky rather than reporting it to law enforcement. No one is above the law, and my office will continue to pursue anyone who looks the other way in the face of child sexual abuse. There are consequences for failing to protect children in Pennsylvania.”

“No one is above the law.” I, too, hold fast to this principle. I’m counting the days until it’s proven in the wake of the deadly insurrection and the myriad crimes of the former White House occupant.


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