The Wives of Sex Offenders: Was Dottie Sandusky Complicit?

Some are questioning how Dottie Sandusky could not have known about the allegations against her husband. Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General via Commonwealth Media Services-AP

Rick was a businessman from a well-to-do family. He ran an Internet company in Jacksonville, Fla., and coached a children’s soccer team. He was devoted to the couple’s two young boys. Life for the family couldn’t have been more normal.

Then, one day, Jane got a call from Rick—from jail. He had been arrested, she says, for setting up a meeting with a girl he believed to be 12 or 13. The “girl” was an FBI agent.

It didn’t take long for the whispering to start. A friend called to tell Jane (she and Rick's names have been changed to protect their privacy) that people were assuming the worst: that she must have known, that perhaps she’d even enabled him, covered it up. “They wondered if I knew, what I knew, what I could have done to stop him sooner,” she says. “I had no idea.”

In the aftermath of the Penn State sex-abuse scandal—and newer allegations against former Syracuse University assistant basketball coach Bernie Fine—some of the most perplexing questions to arise have been about the women who shared the alleged molesters’ beds while it was all happening. How on earth could they not have known? Does it take a certain kind of woman to live this kind of lie?

One somehow suspects that the story of Laurie Fine—who was recorded on tape admitting she knew of the abuse (and may have slept with one of her husband’s victims)—could be typical, a nightmare version of a pedophile’s complicit wife. And, yes, it seems hard to imagine that Dottie, the churchgoing, soft-spoken wife of Penn State’s former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, could really not have known that her husband was allegedly conducting bedtime rituals with young boys that included “back cracking,” kissing, and oral sex. They are reported to have happened in the basement of the couple’s home.

Yet researchers say that cluelessness is typical: pedophiles’ wives are usually in the dark. What seems to fool the women over and over, says University of Arizona psychologist Judith Becker, is that the abusers are usually charismatic and popular—not creepy loners like the one who lives with his mom in the movie Little Children. “They don’t come across as angry or aggressive,” says Becker, who has evaluated more than 1,000 of these men. “And they tend to be kind and loving around children.”

“He seemed like a good father,” Robin Bouchard, who lives in a small town in Maine, says of her ex, who was convicted of repeatedly raping her daughter. “He coached her hockey teams, her soccer teams. He’d come home from work and they’d go play ball. But he wasn’t a good man.”

“The men are very, very good at living a double life,” explains Caprice Haverty, the codirector of a treatment program for sex offenders and their families called A Step Forward. Three years ago, Haverty found out that one of her daughter’s teachers had committed sex crimes against other students. “I’m trained in this, I’m a specialist, and I liked the guy!” she says. “I didn’t notice anything.”

Psychologists are quick to caution that there is no one-size-fits-all model for these women—but they do share some common characteristics. Low self-esteem tops the list. Many are also religious, submissive, shy, and emotionally unstable, says Charlene Steen, another psychologist who specializes in treating sex offenders. (Much of this calls to mind Dottie Sandusky, whose life seemed to revolve around her demigod husband and his charity where she volunteered.)

Sometimes there may be subtle clues—for instance, the pedophile’s frequent lack of conjugal interest, notes Robin Wilson, a Florida psychologist who has worked with sex offenders for 27 years. Indeed, of half a dozen women interviewed by Newsweek over the past week, every single one described being married to a guy who was sexually hesitant. But as one former wife put it: “Plenty of couples have sexual problems. I thought it was normal.”

Still, perhaps the biggest obstacle to recognizing when something severely dysfunctional is going on is the marital bond itself. This is your husband; you’re in love with him. “People find ways of excusing a lot of different behaviors,” explains Maia Christopher, executive director of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers. “If you see somebody coming out of your daughter’s room every night at midnight, sure, you can say, maybe my husband is sexually abusing her. But more likely you’re going to think he’s just checking if she had a nightmare.”

“I’ve looked back so many times,” Jane says of her own experience.“Yes, my husband was different than the guys my girlfriends married—but in ways I liked. There was not a single sign ... There just wasn’t.”

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