The young men who accuse former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky of molesting them have been allowed to remain anonymous through months of intense news coverage and water-cooler conversation about the scandal.
That’s about to change.
When they take the witness stand in a packed Pennsylvania courtroom as early as next week, the alleged victims will be forced to state their names for the record — traumatizing them all over again, their lawyers and victims’ advocates argue, especially given the very real possibility their identities will become common knowledge via social media and the wider Internet.
Most traditional media organizations, including the Associated Press, have longstanding policies against using the names of alleged victims of sexual assault, viewing the crime as so intensely personal and the potential effect of public disclosure so traumatic for the accuser that withholding the identity outweighs the public’s right to know.
But in this anything-goes age of social media and citizen journalists, when anyone with a smartphone can tweet or blog, old media standards may no longer make much difference.
Anyone lucky enough to grab one of the 85 courtroom seats reserved for the public could sit in for the day, jot down some of the accusers’ names, leave and disseminate them to the world.
“Most of us want to have some control over who we share intimate details of our lives with,” said Karen Baker, director of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. “To have that out there on the Internet, you’ve totally lost control, and it’s a scary thing.”
Sandusky, 68, faces 52 counts accusing him of sexually abusing 10 boys over a span of 15 years. Prosecutors say the retired coach befriended boys he met through The Second Mile, the charity he founded for youngsters in 1977, then attacked them, in some cases in his home or inside university athletic facilities. He has denied the allegations.
Most of the accusers are now in their 20s. Up to now, they have been identified in court papers only as “Victim 1,” ”Victim 2” and so on.
Five of the eight alleged victims who could be called to the stand asked Judge John Cleland for permission to testify under pseudonyms, saying through their lawyers that exposing their names would subject them to shame, ridicule and harassment.
An attorney for the accuser known as Victim 4 submitted an affidavit from his psychologist that said public disclosure could trigger symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and interfere with the young man’s treatment and recovery.
And a coalition of advocacy groups argued that removing the cloak of anonymity would have a chilling effect on victims’ willingness to report abuse. Most childhood sexual abuse already goes unreported because young victims fear they will be ridiculed or disbelieved, the groups noted in a brief submitted to the judge.
But the judge said there is no authority in Pennsylvania law to allow the alleged victims to remain anonymous. While state law shields the identities of child victims of sexual assault, it affords no explicit protection to adult accusers even if the abuse took place when they were children.
Cleland also said there is a public policy consideration at stake.
“Courts are not customarily in the business of withholding information,” he wrote. “Secrecy is thought to be inconsistent with the openness required to assure the public that the law is being administered fairly and applied faithfully.” With rare exception, Cleland said, all citizens have a duty to testify publicly, “no matter how personally unpleasant.”