Did ‘Repressed Memory’ Falsely Convict Jerry Sandusky?

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Jerry Sandusky

Jerry Sandusky. Photo by Andrewstern2 via Flickr

In 2012, former Penn State defensive football coach Jerry Sandusky was found guilty of 45 counts of sexual abuse of young men. He is now serving a 30-60 year sentence in Pennsylvania’s SCI Somerset prison.

But in a recent book, journalist Mark Pendergrast claims that a closer look at the evidence presented at trial shows Sandusky is likely innocent.

sanduskyPendergrast argues, in The Most Hated Man in America: Jerry Sandusky and the Rush to Judgment, that the charges were largely the result of efforts by aggressive police investigators and recovered memory therapists who encouraged boys to “remember” molestations that may not have occurred. Pendergrast published his original arguments in The Crime Report in 2016.

In a conversation with TCR writer Megan Hadley, he discusses how his earlier work on the “repressed memory” phenomenon led him to investigate the Sandusky case, why he believes “greed” and media frenzy helped to distort the facts, and how the “rush to judgment” may similarly have ensnared others who have been wrongly accused of campus sex abuse.

The Crime Report: Where did your interest in the Jerry Sandusky scandal begin?

Mark Pendergrast: In 2013, I got an email from a woman who read my book about repressed memories, and she wanted to know if I had paid any attention to the Jerry Sandusky case. She said that it involved repressed memory therapy. At the time I didn’t know anything about the Sandusky case beyond what I had seen on TV or read in newspapers and magazines. I assumed Sandusky was guilty, particularly because of Mike McQueary, a graduate student at Penn State who had seen him abusing a child in the shower. But when I looked into it, I found McQueary didn’t actually see anything; he only heard sounds. Then I got the trial transcripts and really dug into the case. Frankly, I became obsessed with it. I believe it is very likely Sandusky is innocent.

 TCR: In your book you explain how a media frenzy can cause the public to panic. Is that what happened in this case?

Pendergrast: There have been several moral panics throughout history where everyone assumes someone’s guilt and it becomes a mass rush to take action. That clearly did happen in the Sandusky case. The media jumped on the grand jury presentation, and went wild. Within a week Joe Paterno, the longtime coach, had been fired, the president of the college was fired, two other administrators were accused of hiding the abuse, and basically Penn State became the epicenter of a media feeding frenzy.

 TCR: In your book, you cite repressed memory therapists, police officers, and alleged victims as reasons why Jerry Sandusky was falsely accused. So who is to blame?

Pendergrast: They are all to blame. It started with a 15-year-old, Aaron Fisher, who didn’t want to spend so much time with Sandusky anymore. The pattern that I basically uncovered was that Jerry Sandusky would try to be a mentor to troubled young men who were in the Second Mile program and many of them at 14 or 15 started to pull away from him. He was concerned they would get into drugs and bad habits, and from the young men’s point of view, it was like rebelling against a parent. Aaron told his mother one weekend that Sandusky made him feel weird and he asked his mother about websites for sex offenders. His mother then decided this would be a meal ticket, according to the neighbor who lived next door to them in a public housing project.

So Fisher was sent to (Clinton County psychologist) Mike Gillum, who was absolutely sure from the beginning that Sandusky was an evil molester. Although Gillum denies he practiced repressed memory therapy, that is clearly what he did. He believed that Aaron didn’t remember the abuse, and he needed to be educated about how the brain could “dissociate” or “repress” memories, which of course is pseudoscience. Gillum was sure Sandusky fit the profile of a terrible pedophile, and he told Aaron Fisher that repeatedly, until he believed him. It seems fairly clear that without Mike Gillum going after Fisher, none of these abuse allegations would have happened. I blame Mike Gillum, though he was well-intentioned and truly believed in what he was doing. But I also blame greed. I think from the very beginning Fisher and his mother thought there might be a lot of money in this.

 TCR: What are your opinions about the Harvey Weinstein and Hollywood sex abuse scandal? Do you believe Weinstein’s victims are lying and seeking attention/ money as you claim Sandusky’s victims were?

Pendergrast: I don’t think so. I read the New Yorker piece and it all struck me as being researched and accurate. I think the Weinstein story is true and I think it unleashed a flood of allegations, most of which seem substantial and reasonable.

In the case of Harvey Weinstein, it would appear everyone knew he was doing this for years— unlike Sandusky, where nobody made any accusations until much later, after Aaron Fisher and Mike Gillum got it going in 2008. Weinstein is apparently quite guilty, and many of the other people are too, though not all of them. Garrison Keillor, for instance, didn’t do anything other than hug someone, and his hand went onto her bare back. Still, I think most women have been subjected to unwanted sexual advances at one time or another, almost every woman in America.

TCR: You state “allegations of sexual abuse on college campuses involving sports figures may be particularly susceptible to a rush to judgment.” What other aspects of campus life do you believe are highly susceptible to a rush to judgment’?

Pendergrast: Fraternities. Any allegations involving fraternities are assumed to be true because so many of them are true. In my book, I cited the University of Virginia case, where there was a false allegation reported in Rolling Stone which was widely accepted. Or there were the sexual abuse allegations against the Duke University lacrosse players, that were unfounded.

The interesting thing about the Duke lacrosse case, as opposed to Sandusky, is is the way that the media has treated it. Because the case was debunked and thrown out and the players were exonerated, everyone rushed to write books about it. The difference between the Duke Lacrosse case and the Sandusky case was that Sandusky was found guilty and nobody wants to look at any alternative.

So far, the appeal process in Pennsylvania has upheld that judgment. Part of the problem in Pennsylvania is that nobody who is elected is going to want to be “soft on pedophiles,” certainly not the “evil” Jerry Sandusky. And the judges in Pennsylvania are all elected, so it is extremely unlikely that any Pennsylvania judge is going to grant a new trial to Sandusky. I am hopeful however, that when it reaches the federal level, he will get a new trial because his current lawyers did an excellent job of presenting the case.

So I have not lost all hope. But this man, who I am convinced is innocent, is sitting in solitary confinement in prison, and it is remarkable that he has kept his sanity.

TCR: What role did the police play in the possibly wrongful conviction of Sandusky?

Pendergrast: There is something called confirmation bias that psychologists recognize, in which people conduct interviews with a presumption of guilt, and they only consider “evidence” that supports their hypothesis. Police were not the least bit interested in children who said Sandusky was a great guy and he didn’t abuse them. Officers made it clear to these young boys they didn’t believe them and they said “if you remember something at 3 in the morning call us.” They would cross-contaminate by saying things like “Many other people said Sandusky has done this and this and this, how about you?” Officers would make the young men feel that they were failing, hiding, or lying if they didn’t say Sandusky had abused them.

People who believe Sandusky is guilty will say “young boys are ashamed of having been involved with a man in sexual abuse and will often hide it.” I think there is some truth to that. But it is extremely unlikely that none of these 35 young men who came forward told anyone about it at the time of the alleged abuse. Nobody suspected anything. So the police methodology was terrible and they trawled for victims. It wasn’t a matter of anyone spontaneously coming forward until, finally, after the grand jury presentment was out, people came forward, because it became obvious there was going to be a lot of money involved here.

You want to know who is to blame? Penn State is to blame. Penn State was terrified about looking bad, so they assumed guilt and fell all over themselves, giving away millions of dollars to basically anybody without any kind of vetting or investigation.

 TCR: You quote from Mikhail Khorev, a Russian Baptist leader imprisoned for more than three decades in the former Soviet Union, who said, “It was interesting to see what lengths the state officials had gone to prove to themselves that I was a criminal.” Is this what happened in the case of Jerry Sandusky?

Pendergrast: Yes. But we also see that in many cases of DNA exoneration. People whose DNA proves they are innocent. But once the prosecutors and the police decided somebody was guilty, they would ignore any evidence of somebody else being guilty. So the real murderer or rapist went free while they were prosecuting the wrong person. And even when the DNA evidence exonerated the innocent, the prosecutors and the police refused to admit they were mistaken. It’s hard for somebody to admit they did anything wrong.

mark pendergrast

Mark Pendergrast

It is significant that there was no childhood pornography found on Sandusky’s computer or phone. The irony of all this, is that the prosecutors were sending racist, misogynist gross pornography to each other the whole time while investigating Sandusky, who is as pure as snow. He was considered to be something of a saint before the total vilification. But he was a very naive kind of guy. His children referred to it as a Mayberry world he lived in. All of Sandusky’s children (besides the one who went to repressed memory therapy) are sure he is innocent, but won’t say it in public because they are afraid for their own careers and families.

TCR: You say “False confessions are far more common, and easier to elicit, than most people realize.” How so?

Pendergrast: There are entire books about false confessions. The police can legally lie to people. So they can lie and say “Oh, your friend said you did it and they saw you.” Or that their fingerprints were found at the crime scene. Or maybe the police will tell the alleged victims they blacked out or repressed the memory. Many of those cases involve young people who are sleep deprived and frantic, and they will say anything to get out of there. It happens. It happens more frequently than anybody realizes.

TCR: Have you gotten any backlash for writing your book? Perhaps from victims, their families, or advocate groups?

Pendergrast: No, there has not been much backlash, at least not yet. In fact, I’m pleased that Frederick Crews, a brilliant writer and Freud critic, recently published a long, favorable review of the book. I should note that I could only get one alleged victim to let me interview him, which was quite revealing–he explained all about how he had repressed memories of abuse. None of the other alleged victims would talk to me.

There is no way to convey the entirety of the evidence or complexity of this case in an interview. My mantra to critics has become “read the book.” Only after people read the entire book will they be able to understand the entire case.

Editor’s Note: In a related book, Memory Warp, Pendergrast takes a critical look at the phenomenon of repressed memory. For more information on this and other publications by Pendergrast, he invites readers to check out his website.

Megan Hadley is a staff writer for The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.

5 thoughts on “Did ‘Repressed Memory’ Falsely Convict Jerry Sandusky?

  1. Thank you for this excellent article.
    I believe that Mark Pendergrast has shown great courage in writing this book. He is right about Sandusky not getting a fair trial. We are living in sexual witch-hunt times. In the U.S., besides Sandusky, there are hundreds of thousands and possibly over a million other innocent men (and tens of thousands of innocent women) who have been convicted of sex crimes they did not commit over the past 20 years. The American judicial system is radically broken. Accusations without objective evidence are routinely used to obtain convictions.
    While accusations against people like Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and Kevin Stacey seem believable when accusations by dozens of people are put forth in bunches by the mass media, once one starts to investigate each individual accusation, one starts to see that there is no evidence to support it, and there is overwhelming evidence to reject it. This also applies to many politicians, left and right, school teachers and religious people including thousands of Catholic priests.

    • I don’t think Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and Kevin Stacey are comparable to Jerry Sandusky because they essentially admitted sexual relations mainly or exclusively with adults.

      A better comparison would be between Sandusky and former Speaker of the House Denny Hastert. No one suspected Hastert of sex abuse of teenage boys at the time although in hindsight, his behavior was sometimes odd. Like Sandusky, Hastert was a coach and used a youth organization to get close to teens. The big difference was that Hastert confessed. Sandusky has always maintained his innocence.

      • Also, many of Hastert’s former colleagues have said it was well known that he was a closeted homosexual. Nobody ever suspected Sandusky of being gay. Despite the whole “10 year old boy” in the shower myth, the accusers who claimed sex acts were 15-17. If Jerry was guilty, he is certainly a gay man.

  2. The whole case was a modern day lynch mob. Sandusky at least had a trail but Paterno was guilty with no chance to prove innocence. What happened to due process. He never had a chance to defend himself. The way it was handled was a black mark on the university. The terrorists at Gitmo have had more due process and rights than a great man like Paterno.

  3. Thank you for a very enlightening and informative article. I believe Jerry Sandusky is innocent. The only thing he is guilty of is wanting to help underprivileged kids without fathers and or living in unstable environments. The way this case was handled from the beginning by Penn State trustees is shameful. Everyone rushed to judgment. Even McQueary told the prosecutor (Jonelle Eshbach) he NEVER said he witnessed sexual abuse and she told him he had to keep quiet. What kind of justice is that? McQueary testified and maintained all along he HEARD sounds, and I believe the rest was his imagination concluding the sounds were “sexual.”

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