IT'S BEEN almost a week since Jerry Sandusky was found guilty of 45 counts of sexual abuse. And a great big "what if?" won't stop looping through my brain.
Not the Mike McQueary "what if?" as in, "What if that assistant football coach had slammed Sandusky into the wall the night Sandusky molested that child in the shower?"
And not the Penn State "what if?" as in, "What if school leaders had given more thought to the state pen than to Penn State when they heard murmurings of Sandusky's weirdness with kids?"
For me, the loudest "what if?" is one that the trial was not equipped to address:
"What if so many of Sandusky's victims hadn't needed father figures in the first place?"
Easy answer: This never would've happened.
The Second Mile, the organization that Sandusky founded to help disadvantaged children and then trolled to find his victims, was full of kids from homes that were fatherless (or at least "father absent," as coined by the National Fatherhood Initiative). I'd bet my own dad's hypertension meds that Sandusky never would've groomed those Second Milers for sex had the children had active fathers whose wrath Sandusky might've feared.
So it's been hard not to see the Sandusky horror as a sweeping indictment of missing fathers. After all, of Sandusky's eight known victims (two more remain unidentified), six had no father in their lives and three admitted to never having known their dads at all.
On the witness stand, many of the boys said that they'd regarded Sandusky as the father they'd never had.
He "treated me like a son in front of other people. ... Outside of that, he treated me like his girlfriend," said one victim.
Another victim testified, "I didn't want to lose the good things I had. I looked at Jerry as kind of a father figure. ... I didn't want to lose somebody actually paying attention to me."
His words are an aching reminder of how badly a young child craves a grown man's glowing consideration. So much so, he may endure monstrous acts to avoid losing it.
Wily deviants like Sandusky know this. And they circle needy kids like vultures, waiting for the right moment to pounce on all that need.
Father absence is very much on the national mind. In 2008, the National Fatherhood Initiative published a report called "The One Hundred Billion Dollar Man: The Annual Cost of Father-Absence." It estimates that the federal government spends an astounding $99.8 billion a year on programs — anti-violence, anti-poverty and the like — to support father-absent homes.
Through separate studies, the Fatherhood Initiative details statistics showing that kids from father-absent homes are far more likely to suffer physical and sexual abuse than those growing up in two-parent families.
Still, prosecutor Kathleen Kane cautions me not to presume that only fatherless kids are potential prey to predators like Sandusky, because needy kids can be found in families of every demographic.
"A child without a strong support system is the easiest child to get to," says Kane, the Democratic candidate for Pennsylvania attorney general who has prosecuted hundreds of sex-abuse cases. "Even a child from a wealthy, two-parent home can become a victim if he is emotionally detached from his parents. Or if he has emotional issues that make him vulnerable."
And plenty of kids from mother-run households are as protected as they'd be if a good man were in the house, points out Philadelphia Family Court Administrative Judge Kevin Dougherty.
"When I have kids in court who use their lack of a father as an excuse for why they're in trouble, it never flies with me," says Dougherty. "I tell them, 'Barack Obama's father wasn't around, Bill Clinton's father wasn't around. And my own mother's father wasn't around. And we did fine. So don't insult the hard work of your mother by blaming everything on your father.' "
Besides, he adds, "Oftentimes, when we say a father is absent, people assume the father has abandoned his child. But I've had many cases where the father wants very much to be in his child's life, but there's terrible communication with the mother. Each case is so different, you really can't generalize."
OK, so I won't, when it comes to all cases.
But in the Sandusky horror, absent fathers played, overwhelmingly, a crucial role in his terrible success as a predator.