Horseplay history repeats itself in Penn State case

It was just horseplay.

That's what he said.

But it wasn't sexual.

That was his defense to the allegations that he sexually abused children.

It was horseplay, nothing more.

I could be describing Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State football coach, but I'm not.

It was a former Chicago priest who used the horseplay defense, in trying to fend off charges that he sexually abused a teenager from his Arlington Heights parish back in 1982. The priest, Father Robert Mayer, was eventually convicted and sentenced to prison after being linked to numerous other molestation cases.

The “horseplay” that Mayer continued to insist it was, ended up being costly for the Chicago Archdiocese that paid his victims millions of dollars in a settlement.

In the years since Mayer invoked his not-guilty-by-reason-of-horseplay defense, many other have done the same. Other priests, teachers, camp counselors, coaches, students and scout leaders have all tried to excuse their sexual abuse of children by explaining it away as horseplay.

There was the San Francisco minister who blamed his victims for mistaking “horseplay for molestation.” He was convicted of 26 counts in 1986.

In 1992 a Chicago priest was allowed to stay on the job after a complaint which involved “horseplay that could have been misinterpreted,” according to a church spokesman. Ten years later, the Rev. Robert Peter Bowman was removed from ministry following additional complaints.

Two high school students in Massachusetts pleaded guilty to brutal “hazing” incidents in 1999 that they dismissed as simply aggressive “horseplay.”

In 2003, the lawyer for a New Jersey priest said that “This is horseplay and wrestling twisted and turned into a convoluted story that puts this man on trial.” The priest was convicted.

The sickening list of excuses and rationalization goes on right up to what is happening at Penn State with Jerry Sandusky, who contends that his locker room antics were innocent fun. “We were showering and horsing around and he turned all the showers on and was sliding across the floor, and we were possibly snapping a towel in horseplay” Sandusky said.

His attorney, Joseph Amendola, has put the same defense out there, calling Sandusky “a big overgrown kid” who was just “horsing around.”

It may be just coincidence that the words horseplay and pedophile each have nine letters, but it is no accident that one almost always precedes the other.

One of the few research projects done on these cases supports that. A 1988 study of 102 convicted child sex offenders found that “sexual contacts commonly occurred in the context of accidental touching and horseplay or under the guise of routine care-giving.”

Pedophiles typically begin their moves gently, with tickling games, according to psychologists and law enforcement officials. “Belly Button Golf” is one of their favorites. It progresses to wrestling and hugging.

Remember, these are usually young, vulnerable children and the adults are frequently in positions of supervision or respect and have the benefit of conniving experience. The horseplay usually turns sinister even before the children realize what is happening.

Can truly innocent interactions between adults and children be misunderstood? I suppose it is possible. These days though, coaches, teachers, counselors and others shouldn't even be in a position where touching could enable that kind of confusion.

Unfortunately, the burden is still on parents of adolescents and teenagers to make sure they know that it is never right for an adult to touch them. Children need to be reminded of that and questioned from time to time, especially if something seems odd or out of place.

We place all of this emphasis on “if you see something, say something” when it comes to unattended lunch bags and suspicious-looking people. The reality is, considering the few terrorist attacks and random kidnappings that actually occur, our children seem to be more at risk of being molested.

With that in mind, starting at a young age we should be telling them to say something if they see something ... and if they feel something.

Chuck Goudie, whose column appears each Monday, is the chief investigative reporter at ABC7 News in Chicago. The views in this column are his own and not those of WLS-TV. He can be reached by email at, followed at and on