Cognitive Dissonance and the Sandusky Situation

The Penn State scandal has Justin Cascio wondering what’s wrong with a culture that prevents a simple call to 911.

Why didn’t that graduate assistant call 911 when he saw a child being raped in the shower?

Imagine that it’s 2002 and you’re a grad student—a 28-year-old former division-one quarterback, yes, but still a graduate assistant—in the Penn State athletic department. Late one night when you should be alone in the building, you hear what sounds like sex in the locker room showers. Following the sounds, you see something so terrible that you have trouble believing what you are seeing: a man sexually assaulting a boy. What do you do?

Mike McQueary, a man who once broke up a knife fight between two Penn State players, certainly could’ve stopped whatever he saw Jerry Sandusky doing to that little boy—and he certainly should’ve—but how do you react in that situation? What do you do when you, a former Penn State player, see your former coach, the legendary defensive coordinator, doing something unspeakable, something so totally unthinkable? Well, what we know is that McQueary behaved like someone in a panic: he ran away.

Having found a phone, the next appropriate reaction to witnessing a violent crime would be to call the police. Instead, the panicked student called his dad, who advised him to get out of the building. The foundational horror of the moment, that a child was being raped at that very moment, in that building, was apparently forgotten and, in a lapse of perspective the father advised his son, not to call the police, but to tell someone in the school administration what he has seen. Sadly, the administrators who were notified worked only to cover up the crime and minimize the harm that their resident child molester—and beloved football coach—could do—but only what he did on campus.


By reporting on this crime in the sports pages, we frame this and other stories involving anyone in sport as being about sports: about institutions, teams, and their brands. A pathological overidentification with an institution or in-group may be why a grad assistant in the athletics department chose to report a first-hand witnessing of a sex crime against a child to a school administrator instead of to the police. The school takes on a kind of tribal identity, with the school administrators being like lords or chiefs: the proper authority for everything that happens on their turf.

To Penn State college football fans, Paterno and Sandusky are Penn State. They see Sandusky as their own, and the victim, who Sandusky met through his work with Second Mile, an organization set up to help troubled boys, as being from the outside. When everyone from the grad assistant to the upper administration acted to keep crimes committed by one of Penn State’s brand-makers secret, they were hiding their own shame for admiring and abetting a known child molester.


School administrators who restricted Sandusky’s activities on campus convinced themselves they had done enough. People empowered and accountable to act in the face of an accusation, acted out their denial. Resolving the cognitive dissonance caused by believing both the witnesses’ accounts of Sandusky’s attacks on boys, and that the coaching team of Penn State was a force of good, meant behaving like a dysfunctional family, in which everyone acts to hide and protect their abusive member. This is where vigilante systems of justice always break down, whether in a town in the Old West, in a family, or on a close-knit campus: when it comes to policing one’s own.

I wonder if the any of the men who could have stopped Sandusky ever imagined themselves in the boy’s place. Facing the terror of childhood sexual abuse may have been more than any of them could handle, and while no excuse, could explain the passivity of each of the men who could have reported Sandusky to the police, and did not. I wonder if they projected onto the boy their sense that a shameful thing had happened to the victim and that, as a future man, his sexual injury must be hidden. I can’t know what was in any of their heads, but I also can’t stop wondering what would have to change in the culture of the Penn State athletic department, for anyone involved to have made the right decision when they had reason to suspect Sandusky’s crimes. What would have to change about not just Penn State, but the culture of collegiate sport, or of men, or all of us—for McQueary to have known the right thing to do? What is wrong with our culture when neither a grown man nor his father knows that, when you see a violent crime in progress and you can’t stop the attack yourself, that you call 911?

photo: vvvracer / flickr


The GMP on Penn State:

We Are?

Paterno and Pedestals, Julie Gillis

When the Game Becomes Religion, Gary Percesepe

Male Lust Arrives in Happy Valley, Tom Matlack

Destroying a Young Boy’s Soul, Ken Solin

Power Is at the Core of Sexual Harassment, Mervyn Kaufman

The Tragic Lionization of Joe Paterno, Tom Ley

Men, Monsters, and the Media, Nicole Johnson

Loyalty and Responsibility at Penn State, Andrew Smiler

Jerry Sandusky and Penn State: A Familiar Story, Sophia Sadinsky

Beware the Legacy You Are Protecting: Winning Isn’t Everything, Eli Kaplan

Institutional Injustice: Why Rooting For Universities Breeds Immorality, Aaron Gordon

I Failed, Rick Morris

Sandusky-ed, Tim Green

Penn State: What Are We Talking About?, L. Edward Day

We (Still) Are, Cameron Conaway

Cognitive Dissonance and the Sandusky Situation, Justin Cascio

Start Snitching, David Perez


About Justin Cascio

Justin Cascio is a writer, trans man, and biome. His most recent publication is a short memoir, "Heartbreak and Detox," available on Kindle.
You can follow him on Twitter, Google, and Facebook.


  1. Richard Aubrey says:

    Justin. Yeah, it’s about the PSU culture consisting of, as far as we know now, about four guys.
    The rest of us…not so much.

  2. Richard Aubrey says:

    False premise. If we had a culture that kept people from calling 911, the 911 operators would all be laid off due to lack of business.
    What we have here is a situation of great complexity–given the hierarchy of the Penn athletic department–and one guy, McQueary, who will no doubt rot in hell and the sooner the better, who didn’t do what 98% of the rest of us would have done if it meant assailing Sandusky with our elbow crutches.
    The situation tells us something about McQueary, a good deal about the reflexive CYA activities of educrats. Possibly, as this expands, we may find that Sandusky had something on somebody that kept Penn from being more severe. Or perhaps, as one commenter on another blog mentioned, that Spanier is a real horndog and the U is used to covering that up. More horrifying is the suggestion by somebody who claimed to know that Sandusky pimped out his boys to big Penn donors. Then there’s the missing DA who looked into the original allegations.
    This is that state where two judges took bribes to send innocent kids to a for-profit juvie facility.
    This is the U that covered for Mann and his bogus hockeystick.
    Nothing to do with a culture about 911

    • It’s about a culture that doesn’t regard the anal rape of a ten year old boy a violent crime in progress, to be handled accordingly (including by calling 911), and not as being something like a code violation, to be reported up the chain of command. When your house is on fire, do you write to your councilman?

  3. I have a different question that has been plaguing me, and that I was planning to write about for GMP, but I’m just going to put it in this comment for now and see if I have time to take it on as a full-blown blog post later for GMP later.

    My question is, if you see a man raping a child, why would you not attack the man with whatever physical force you have, at whatever risk to yourself it may be, and try to IMMEDIATELY get him off his victim. I’m a relatively small woman. I can tell you this. If I walked in on that shower scene, I’d have flung myself onto Sandusky in a blind rage, biting, kicking, scratching, whatever it took, and likely the rape would have been interrupted, and I’d have taken whatever physical risk that meant for me. Presumably I’d have lived to make that 911 call. And if not, well? Here’s the thing: WHERE is human instinct and primal compassion??? You see violence happening to a child, why does your autonomic nervous system not kick into gear? If it’s fight or flight, where’s the fight?! All these men who saw this and then reported it in one way or another, but never even to 911, should have grabbed than son of a bitch Sandusky in the shower and beat the hell out of him, and taken that scared little boy and wrapped him up or dressed him and made sure he was safe, and then gotten him home or to the police. We sure do need the police, but IN THE MOMENT, what was needed was action. Period.

    • I suspect there are a number of reasons for the Paralysis that occurred, and that many were compromised by just one “S”ertain person who lived a strange life and existence that had no moral boundaries, was not limited by conscience and which others tried to control. And I also suspect that they will not come out until any trial takes place. Even then it may never come out.

      I even have concerns that there may be no trial, as it hinges around one person. The reasons and explanations that people want may be denied to all. The person may decide to extend the power they have had over others by not allowing a trial to take place – by simply absenting themselves permanently through one means or another. There is a legal mess on a massive scale with both Criminal and Civil Liabilities all over.

      Some will be denied justice due to Statue time limits – and so will be forced down the civil route. If there is no criminal trial, it will make it harder to pursue that route. That is a lot of power for a person to have, and they can exercise it by making sure no Criminal Trial takes place. One man is presently holding a lot of power and he may decide to exercise it, as the ultimate power play over the people involved.

      We know few fact and little to nothing about the motivations and reasoning of so many people. There is one date and event that keeps being referenced from 2002.

      It is assumed by many that that is the first definitive date that a number of people were aware of issues. There is as yet no evidence in the public domain to support that. If they should know of an earlier date they will have been told by legal council to stay quiet.

      What if that date is wrong, and there were known issues prior 2002, possibly decades before, and some people believed they knew how to control a “S”ertain person, and got well out of their depth – and were manipulated in to believing all was fine and dandy. If they had spoken out in 2002 they faced all their past actions being exposed. So many questions would be asked.

      One would have been why stay silent for so long? Why had they not spoken up earlier? Faced with the mess that could have been created, some would be motivated by many reason to keep quiet, especially if there is a group of people who have been staying silent for a long time. They had it under control – they could get control back.

      One thing that is becoming clearer is that a “S”eratin person ticks many boxes on a checklist created by Dr Robert D. Hare.

      If it should prove true that the checklist is valid, and that individuals were attempting to control such a person, it will explain a lot – even if so many will simply not be able to accept or forgive what has occurred.

      It could even mean a number of people who have not been charged facing charges and even more questions. The trail of one person may well not take place. The trails of others are not over yet.

      • According to the GJ report, there was an official investigation into Sandusky in 1998 (involving CPS) but that investigation was halted by higher ups at PSU. Interesting that PSU was able to halt an investigation like that, isn’t it?

        Then, soon after, Sandusky, the #2 guy at one of the most prestigious and successful football programs in the country and heir-apparent to Paterno, suddenly ‘retired’ at age 55 with a generous benefit package and never coached anywhere else again. Also a fairly odd scenario. One would think other programs would have tried to snatch him up but they didn’t… I wonder why.

        From reading the report, it’s hard not to conclude that people were aware that Sandusky was a pedophile and that he was protected by powerful people.

        Maybe McQueary knew that and thought only Paterno would be able to do anything. Maybe MCQueary was a victim too. Maybe he was just morally weak. It’s a lot of speculation at this point. But there were bigger problems at PSU than McQueary not doing what should have been done.

        • Sandusky started Second Mile in 1977. That is 21 years before 1998 and some 34 years ago.

          There is as yet a 21 year window uncounted for.

          Three cases were Known to PSU 1998 (two boys) 2002 (one boy) – The other reported case does not make clear if PSU authorities were made aware – or had any knowledge of event and janitorial staff in 2000.

          Given the Grand Jury report, I would suspect that Grape Vines had in some way communicated the 2000 event. If nothing else, janitorial staff would have warned friends and family to not allow kids to be exposed to groups such as Second Mile. There would have been a community basis of concern.

          The dates and periods revealed in the Grand Jury Presentment indicate that at least 5 children were being targeted at the same time. I suspect this revealed clustering is due to correlation of one target against extant records held by Second Mile. Some of the children targeted were also known to each other. It is indicated that Sandusky attempted to use normalizing his activity with one child to normalize it with another. There was not just sexual abuse involved by Psychological manipulation as well. It indicates premeditation.

          It is not possible to be accurate, but since an estimated 90% of abuse victims never report and are not known, it would indicate that in the period from 1997 there were over 80 children targeted and actively abused. As it is unlikely that activity only started in 1997 there are likely to be targets as far back as the 1960’s and possibly earlier.

          Some have the mistaken view that abuse only started in 1997/8. That is very unlikely. the only known reports (so far) relate to that period.

          When overlap is considered, the number of children involved could be as high as 200. That figure only addresses those who were targeted for what would be considered actual sexual abuse. It is of interest that One Witness to the Grand Jury made it clear that they were first targeted by activity the superscribed as “Testing” to see what the reaction would be – and this was done during a Sandusky Family Picnic.

          Some may leap to the conclusion that this would indicate that Sandusky abused some or all of the six adopted Sandusky children, or that children fostered in the Sandusky household were abused. That is not correct. What can be seen is that certain borderline and questionable activity was normalized in the Sandusky Household. That would act to reduce concern by people connected with the Household, be that family members, friends and guests. Sandusky is a physical guy, he is on rough sports – it’s just horsing about that a child ( what would they know ) has misconstrued. A child seeing family members not be concerned would be lead to believe that what was of concern to the child was the child getting it wrong – being in error. This would open the door for further activity. Peer pressure and situational pressure caused by the relationship with and exposure to the Sandusky family would achieve that.

          I would suspect that a great many if not all kids associated with Sandusky were subjected to testing.

          The repeated use of showers features, as does access to a sauna. This indicates that Sandusky used what is seen by many as a standard male behavior of shared nudity and sporting related activity to gain opportunity to test his targets reactions. There is a large indication of premeditation and cunning. Kids get told that it’s all OK cos don’t guys share showers after a work out? Kids exposed to an aroused penis could be cajoled with reassurances that this is what happens when the team showers – it’s normal.

          That is also linked to the giving of gifts and also threat against at least one victim. The presents of Dress Clothes indicates that some may have been viewed as Trophies to be shown off. The taking of many victims to Adult events under the supposed guise of special friendship also emphasizes the trophy aspect, and would encourage other Adults to raise Sandusky as a perceived good guy.

          These activities were not in some isolated venue surrounded by fields and no neighbors – the venues were PSU sport facilities, Events and venues linked to PSU and Second Mile events, The Sandusky Household – all of which had large numbers of adults present. The Venues were on a state wide and interstate basis.

          Given the picture, I find it hard to believe that “ALL” adults were blind, and that no-one was concern free.

          A Small Group at PSU would have been concerned, but due to their failures they would be compromised anyway and unlikely to act. If Another Adult should have raised concerns with any of the people in that group and been dissuaded from concern by reassurances – heaven help the PSU employees.

          I find it inconceivable that at least one child did not become emotionally upset and make some comment to an adult other than a parent in the window of opportunity covering 30 plus years.

          Given the figure that at least 15% of individuals have been subject to sexual predation in childhood, there would have been at least 15% of the adults encountered who had relevant personal experience from which to have concern.

          Even the most guarded of predator will have moments when they make unguarded comment, allow an unguarded facial expression or forget themselves and allow some glimpse of their nature. I know that to be true since I have been directly involved in catching quite a few abusers, of not just children, who gave themselves away in such unguarded moments.

          I find it inconceivable that No Adult at any time was not a witness to such Unguarded Expression and did not have concern – or at the very least a moment of Shock or relevant Cognitive Dissonance.

          I also find it most odd that after concerns ( no matter how guarded the language ) were raised with Second Mile in 2002 by PSU employees, that the management and trustees of Second Mile did not actively review all known contact with children and the “Solitary” activity of Sandusky with Kids. Second Mile would have been able to identify the child and review matters with that child.

          Given that Second Mile supposedly addresses the needs of Disadvantaged Kids, and given that such kids ( male and female ) are a known fertile ground for abusers and exploitation, and this is even touched on in their publicity:

          “Children served by The Second Mile’s community-based programs include those who are impoverished, abused, neglected,…”

          It is claimed by Second Mile that after they were made aware of some form of incident in 2002 “the information had been internally reviewed and that there was no finding of wrongdoing,…”

          Second Mile have also stated “Our highest priority always has been and will continue to be the safety and well-being of the children participating in our programs. We encourage program participants to report any allegations of abuse and/or inappropriate sexual activity wherever it has occurred, and we take any such reports directly to Child Protective Services. We have many policies and procedures designed to protect our participants, including employee and volunteer background checks, training and supervision of our activities.”

          I was struck by “We encourage program participants to report any allegations of abuse and/or inappropriate sexual activity wherever it has occurred, and we take any such reports directly to Child Protective Services.”.

          They also claim to carry out “supervision of our activities.”. So how many actions of Supervision were carried out concerning Sandusky, and who was the supervisor?

          What was being reviewed on 2002?

          The fact that ANY report had been received should have been raised with Child Protective Services – and yet it was not.

          NO information is available as to whether events in 1998 that were actively investigated by PSU police, other authorities and known to the DA caused Second Mile to review matters in 1998.

          Either all of the related investigative authorities were incompetent and failed to gain even most basic information from Second Mile, which would be needed to establish base line evidence for investigation, else Second Mile knew of the concerns – and these concerns from 1998 would have been known of them when any form of concern was raised in 2002.

          The only reasons for Second Mile not being aware of concerns from 1998 is either Gross Incompetence and systemic failure by multiple agencies, else Second Mile were aware – or were not made aware due to other concerns related to Second Mile.

          If Second Mile have as they claim “many policies and procedures designed to protect our participants” then such policies would require that historical concerns (1998) be reviewed in, light of newly emerged concerns (2002). Such policies would do that, if they were worth the paper they were written on.

          If nothing else – this whole mess is going to open some eyes in future – even whilst a good many will keep their mouths shut long after they should have reasonably be making comment and asking questions.

          • Addendum

            It is now apparently revealed that Second Mile were aware of the 1998 reports involving 2 children. The person with full knowledge of the reports was State College attorney Wendell V. Courtney.

            He was at the same time counsel for Second Mile.

            I hope that Mr Courtney grasped the nature of conflicted interest and did not advice one or both of the people he worked for so that Vital Information did reach the right people.

    • It’s a good question, and I can understand on a gut level why someone would not intervene, but they’re not reasons that make me feel good about a person. There are multiple adrenaline responses besides fight, including flight, which it seems is what McQueary did. He was really scared. I get that. Men in wartime run away from the battlefield. This kind of thing happens. But then he gets grounded enough to have a phone conversation with his father. I mean, when I imagine the call, I imagine his mother answering, and him asking for his father, waiting for him to come to the line, blurting out something, his father telling him to calm down and tell him what he saw. But I don’t know McQueary or his dad. This is just what I imagine. The kind of guy who’d run, but then call his father. What kind of dad does he have? This is just where my mind tends to run when I imagine this scene.

    • LOLing Woman says:


      I am sorry to say this, but you have NO idea what you would have done if you had actually witnessed something like that.

      It’s easy to judge and say what you would have done – but you really don’t know. Statistics say that you would have done the same thing – run away.

      • You’re entitled to your opinion, but what a discouraging thing to say to me or anyone. I’m not a statistic…I’m a human being and a mother. Whether you’re “right” or “wrong” about what would have rhetorically happened, I don’t understand what feels like a defense of the people who looked the other way. Righteous anger, indignation, and resolve that one would have DONE something should be encouraged, not dismissed. We NEED people to believe they should and can take action. Your comment is disillusioning. I just don’t get why you felt you needed to weigh in with a defeatist opinion…

  4. There is only one way to describe the behavior of McQueary (and apparently his father): cowardice. To see a boy being sexually assaulted by a man—any man—and to walk away is simply cowardly. To advise your son to walk away when he calls to tell you that he just witnessed a man—any man—sexually assaulting a boy is cowardly.

    They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. In the case of the cowardly McQuearys, this seems to be true.

  5. Could McQueary be another one of Sandusky’s victims? He’s a local boy who grew up pretty much in the PSU football program. Sandusky’s behavior probably started long before the date of the first accusation in the grand jury report. If so, that might help to explain a little about why McQueary reacted in the way he did. His reaction and his subsequent behavior is incomprehensible to me. How could you see what he alleges to have seen and not do something proactive and definitive to stop it? And how could you continue to go to work in that place and see that man bring more little boys around for nine more years? It’s beyond the pale.

    • MediaHound says:

      If as you hint there was a connection between McQuary and A “S”ertain person, it may provide some form of explanation as to McQuary’s actions.

      It may not be excusable, but it may provide a form of rational reasoning.

      It’s worth remembering that an abuse victim will often not act rationally, in the eyes of others, within their own situation. That tendency can last a long time – and it can even last a life time to varying degrees.

      Ask anyone with abuse induced Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Even being able to recall events in a cohesive manner and communicate them can be an issue.

      That may explain one persons actions.

      And the others? What is their explanation?

      Is the issue that abuse in so endemic at PSU, and they all suffer abuse induced Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – JoePa included?

      If that is the case, I can see epidemiologist flocking to PSU on a global scale. It’s so rare to find a three generational cluster like that. It would be so unprecedented that it too would gain global media attention.


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