The Psychology of the Sandusky Cover Up: A Counselor's Perspective

As media continues to discuss Jerry Sandusky's alleged abuses of children, teens, and young men, I can't help but feel a profound sense of rage and disappointment about it. On the one hand, my mind asks, "How did this happen?" while on the other hand, my training in psychology helps me understand the unfortunate events.

I decided to write this article to explain, in my opinion, why some people may have made the decision not to pass on the information they had to authorities regarding allegations that Sandusky had sexually abused kids and teens. I'm not making excuses for those who knew. Of course, most people reading this article will agree that those same people should have contacted local police immediately.

Sexual Themes and the "No Talk" Rule

Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, a "no talk" rule exists in American society, specifically related to subjects of a sexual nature. What this means is that whenever some individuals encounter a situation that's incredibly uncomfortable and involves sexual behavior, they don't want to talk about it. They believe it just shouldn't be discussed.

I would submit that many react this way because their parents taught them that sex was "bad" or at the very least, were sent the message that sex was a subject to be avoided. As education is dispersed, many understand the profound negative impact on those with less power (such as kids, teens, women, and members of various minority groups) that exercising the no talk rule can have in alleged sexual abuse situations.

The Phenomenon of Diffusion of Personal Responsibility

While in college, I learned about Albert Bandura, a famous psychologist at Stanford University, who discovered a social-psychological phenomenon that occurs when numbers or groups of people are involved in unsavory situations. Bandura called his discovery, "diffusion of personal responsibility."

It's a theory that states that when people are in a group (or not alone) and observe a morally upsetting event, a type of group mentality takes over. This phenomenon causes each person in the group to feel he isn't responsible to act to get people help in any way.

Interestingly, if just a single person is present when something goes wrong, chances are better that the lone individual will be more likely to act (PsycNET website). But if it's a larger group, no one takes responsibility to right the wrong-there's diffusion of personal responsibility.

The Sandusky Case and Diffusion of Personal Responsibility

PennLive website recently reported that in 2002, a graduate student, Mike McQueary (who later became the Assistant Football Coach at Penn State) made an allegation to Joe Paterno, the Head Coach of Penn State's Football team. McQueary said he saw Jerry Sandusky in a shower sexually molesting a boy who appeared 10 years old.

Paterno reportedly did nothing but tell McQueary he would have to talk about what he saw with then-Athletic Director, Tim Curley. Over a week later, McQueary spoke with Curley and Gary Schultz, head of Campus Police about the incident. Again, Curley and Schultz did nothing, except tell then-Penn State President, Graham Spanier. Guess what? He didn't call the authorities either.

Of note is the fact that nearly all these individuals lost their jobs after more allegations against Sandusky emerged. Some of these individuals recently testified before a grand jury that they did have knowledge there had been alleged sexual fondling, an occurrence of sexual contact, or sexual abuse by Jerry Sandusky, yet did not report the allegations to the local police department.


So, I think the individuals "in the know" in the Sandusky case could have been affected by the above psychological issues-applying the "no talk" rule and diffusion of personal responsibility. Obviously, some of those involved also might have intentionally engaged in a cover-up to protect the reputations of the football team, the coaching staff, and even Penn State.

More could have and should have been done earlier in the process to prevent subsequent abuses. It's time for all of us to take a serious look within and ask, "How would I react in a similar situation?"


Jerry Sandusky was subsequently found guilty of 45 counts of child sexual abuse. August 13th was set for his pre-sentencing hearing. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) recently sanctioned Penn State because of the Sandusky case as follows: all the winnings of Penn State's football team during the years Joe Paterno coached from 1998-2011 are vacated. Penn State must also reduce 20 scholarships over 4 years. The football team is banned from playing post-season games for 4 years, and Penn State must pay $60 million in damages to be placed in endowment for victims of abuse.

More from Pearl Grace:

Effects of Facebook on Kids and Teens

Gender Differences in Mental Illness: A Counselor's Perspective

Getting Comfortable with Your Own Feelings


American Psychological Association, PsycNET website

PennLive website

Professional experience

Sage Journals, Personality and Social Psychology Review website

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