Listening to Jerry: Why it is vital for sexual abusers tell their story.

The trial of Jerry Sandusky is over, and he has been found guilty. The victims have told their haunting, painful, dramatic and heart-rending stories of abuse at Sandusky’s hands. One of Sandusky’s adopted sons is also claiming that he sexually abused him. We will probably hear more and more of the victims’ stories in the coming weeks.

As painful as the stories are to hear, it is crucial for the victims’ healing that they are finally able to tell their stories. There is, however, a vital part of the story that is missing, a part that we will probably never know: Jerry Sandusky’s real life story, the hidden story that explains what happened to this man who ended up doing these horrible and criminal things to his victims.


It is good that we are hearing the stories of the victims as they voice the pain, trauma, victimization, betrayal of trust and exploitation of vulnerability that they experienced. As a psychotherapist who has counseled hundreds of survivors of childhood and adolescent sexual abuse, I know these stories well. I know, too, what courage it took these young men to speak out about what they endured. The road of healing ahead of them may be long and difficult, yet telling their story is one of the vital and most freeing parts of that process.

I have also counseled many dozens of perpetrators of abuse and listened to their stories and challenged them to take responsibility for what they did to their young victims. I have also helped them to reconstruct the path that eventually led them to abuse. From this experience I know how powerfully healing and liberating it is for them to own and tell their story as well.

But, I doubt very much that we will ever hear this part of Jerry Sandusky’s story. Actually, I’m not sure that we are interested or care. There seems to be a nearly universal lack of curiosity about Jerry Sandusky’s real backstory. No one asks how this seemingly good man and talented coach came to be this way. What brought him to do these awful acts to his victims, this man who founded the youth group called Second Mile in 1977—years before the abuse occurred—and with his wife, Dottie, adopted six children and fostered several others? We just assume that he is a monster and a predator and has always been so. Our desire for black and white answers, for clear-cut heroes and victims and evil villains leaves us satisfied with this judgment and we go no further.

Passing Judgment

My professional experience tells me that there is a tragic backstory to Jerry Sandusky’s case that we need to know—that we ought to want to know—before we pass judgment on this man. Jerry Sandusky is a serial predator of young boys. How did he get this way? Was he always this sort of man? Did something happen to him along the course of his life that caused him to develop this abusive behavior? Is he just plain evil, or is he sick? Did he consciously plan all of this, or was he driven by a sick and destructive compulsion? Was there ever any goodness in the man and his actions, or was it all a front for his predatory grooming of his victims?

Unless Sandusky honestly tells his story, we will never have the definitive answers to these compelling questions. However, the life histories of my perpetrator clients suggest some likely clues to his untold story and provide possible answers. Their stories do not usually come forth easily or readily. Like their own victims, they are blocked by their own shame about what they have done and fear about the consequences of telling their story honestly. They are often stuck in denial and rationalization in the early part of their treatment, and sometimes by arrogance and narcissism, which serve to mask extreme self-loathing. However, persistent, challenging but non-shaming listening often brings forth their story.

Most of the stories of the abusers I have treated are some variation of the following. It is likely that Sandusky’s story is similar. Not a single one of the perpetrator clients I have worked with set out consciously or purposely to become abusers of children or teens. Instead, the seeds of these behaviors grew over time within them, unknown to them, like a silent and hidden cancer that becomes evident only when it finally metastasizes into a full-blown and out-of-control disease. It then becomes a complex and addictive set of compulsions and behaviors that the disease itself makes very difficult to face and admit and impossible to control without outside help. It is like uncontrollable flesh-eating bacteria that overwhelm the person’s mental, moral and spiritual immune systems and take over its host body, mind and spirit. And the “flesh” that it eats is not only the bodies and psyche of the perpetrator’s young victims, but the mind and soul of the perpetrator himself.

The seeds of this cancer are usually planted in the perpetrator’s childhood. Although this is a complex disease with several pathways of development, most of my clients experienced some kind of significant and damaging trauma and abuse during their childhood. Quite often they themselves were victims of childhood sexual abuse. Sometimes, the trauma is physical or emotional abuse or some early abandonment or relational trauma from their parents or other trusted adult. I have had a few clients whose trauma was early exposure to graphic adult pornography.

Whatever the trauma, normal emotional and psychosexual development is arrested and distorted. Sexual desire and pleasure become connected with self-medication and self-soothing of emotional pain and, at the same time, with secrecy and shame. There are alternating attempts at control and periods of binging and loss of control. The object of desire becomes distorted and obsessive. All of these sexual problems are usually accompanied by an emotionally and relationally immature inner personality—some part of the perpetrator is still a needy, wounded child—often hidden beneath a surprisingly accomplished and seemingly competent outer adult personality.

Why Should We Care?

Some version of this tragic narrative is likely Jerry Sandusky’s story. However, without challenging and yet compassionate professional help, he will likely remain in his silence, secrecy, denial and self-delusion, and so we will never know for sure. But why should we care? Shouldn’t we just lock him up for life and write him off as the monster his monstrous behavior seems to show him to be?

There are a couple of reasons, I believe, to care about his real story. Sexual abuse of minors is one of the few illnesses in which we simply judge the carrier of the disease as bad, and do not probe further to look for causes and preventions for the disease. If we want to protect our children and stop the horrible damage to young lives that sexual abuse inflicts, part of our efforts ought to involve learning how to identify this disease, stop it, treat it and prevent it. To do this effectively, we have to become willing to listen with understanding and tough compassion to the stories of the perpetrators themselves.

The other reason to care is for our selves. One of the effects of abuse is to dehumanize all the parties involved. The abuser uses his victim as an object, without rights, feelings and needs of his own, to fulfill his sick and compulsive needs. In doing so the abuser dehumanizes himself as well. When we refuse to look past the abuser’s horrendous actions and see the suffering and wounded humanity underneath, we participate in the same process of dehumanization as the abuser. In simply judging Jerry Sandusky to be evil and not caring about what happened to this man, we diminish our own humanity and embitter our spirit. That is why I pray that Jerry Sandusky, for his sake, for his victims’ sake and for our own, will someday tell his full story, and that we will have ears, heart and soul to listen.

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Victoria Schmidt
6 years 6 months ago
Thank you, Patrick, for this insightful article that speaks to both sides of the issue of sexual abuse - the abused and the abuser.  Both have tragic stories that need telling.  Your work and writing have taught me the important lesson that forgiveness is vital to healing and that we need to see and understand the story of the person who perpetrates these crimes.  It's what Richard Rohr means when he teaches that if we don't transform our own pain all we are left to do is transmit it to others.  There is little doubt in my mind that Jerry Sandusky was abused as a child.  He experienced and learned that behavior from someone.  When I was able to forgive my abuser after years of emotional pain and struggle I could finally see him not as a monster but as a broken human being who needed help but could never seek it for himself. 
Our society is so quick to throw bad people away, hide them in a cell and never think of them as human beings again.  But indeed they are and most likely they are the ones that our Jesus would reach out to the most. It is a challenging Gospel to embrace but embrace we must.  
6 years 6 months ago
I agree - finding a way to help these damaged people before they damage others in turn is ideal. But how to do that? Counseling is expensive, psychiatric care even more so. And both are dependent on the individual's ability to express himself verbally. While hiding from pain is not healing, not hiding is very hard. Will anything or anyone in a prison help anyone convicted of child molestation? Can we hope to learn from them, at least, and teach others in turn how not to behave?
Katherine McEwen
6 years 6 months ago
This is a really great, compassionate article. My dad was an abuser, one of those men who'd never be arrested or prosecuted, who sits in the pews and participates in church activities. One of those folks you'd never suspect of being a sexual offender. At the same time, he had many good qualities which he often displayed. He also had a history of severe family of origin dysfunction, separation, and perhaps abandonment-at least psychospiritually. He had chronic mental health problems from mid-life on. Plus substance abuse. So where was the chicken and where was the egg? And I know before he died we had a renewed relationship, something that could have never happened without some deep healing for both of us.
Richard Hilliard
6 years 6 months ago
Patrick Fleming's ability to lay the cards on the table with no hand kept close to the vest broadens sensitivity to crimes such as these which too often are viewed only from the disturbing context of "an eye for an eye" by journalists who hover over trials only to blame, blame, blame the perpetrators. Until maturity among our citizenry can recognize that the assailed and the assailants are ALL victims, we will perpetuate a legal system that seeks only to punish, not rehabilitate. And people of Christian faith will fail to embrace the love which knows no bounds through forgiveness. Over and over and over Jesus taught about forgiveness, excuse me, he commanded that we forgive. Forgiveness frees one to consider a different future. It does not condone. It recognizes that had the "criminal" known better, the crime would not have been committed. Are we not all deserving of another chance to get life right...through a justice that restores ALL to life free of sin? Practice forgiveness. It is the deepest expression of love and respect for the dignity of humanity.
Keyran Moran
6 years 6 months ago
Well put; I agree.

There have been about 10,000 instances in the USA of sexual abuse by priests. I have often wondered why so few priests, in general, write memoirs, but especially the abusers should..... for their sake and for the Church's sake.

A friend of mine, a Jesuit, and I had dinner and a long talk in Manhattan a number of years ago. Going back to his rectory we stopped near the entrance and he said to me quite confidentially Don, he said, I am going in now after a very warm and interesting evening. Do you realize that when I pace through the reading-smoking that I have almost nothing in common with anyone in this room or in this building.

Don, he continued, not only have I given up the normal sexual satisfaction of marriage and the chance and maybe the joy of fatherhood, but I must tell you that the priesthood is a weird profession.

Jack Lowe, SJ, was one of the heroes-he volunteered as a chaplain and later-with my urging-became a psychotherapist.

He too wrote no memoirs; he died in his sixties from lung cancer.

6 years 6 months ago
In The Brothers Karamozof, Dostoyefsky records a conversation between Aloysa and another individual. "Is it not a terrible sight to see a man who starts out with the ideal of the Madonna and ends up with the ideal of Sodom?" The reply:  "Even more ghastly is the man who starts out with the ideal of the Madonna and winds up with the ideal of Sodom while the  ideal of the Madonna is still glowing within him."
Frank Gianattasio
6 years 5 months ago
Patrick Fleming gives the impression that abusers can be cured.
I disgree and would like to see evidence that any cure has ever been effected.

The article seems to focus on the abuser who cannot be cured, and neglects the problems of the victims who are the people that really need help.  

The key comments about abusers are that they were abused. 

The abusers often destroy the souls of ther victims, and prevent them from ever living normal lives.

Some victims then become abusers and cannot be cured of their problem. 

The people who need the most help are the victims. When you focus on the abuser you are looking through the wrong end of the telescope.

We should always forgive sinners, but we should not decieve ourselves that abusers can easily be cured of their affliction. 

Too many people who know abusers and do not report them commit a grave sin of omission. 

The focus should be on preventing victims from becoming abuser.


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