US college football in the spotlight at sex abuse trial of renowned coach Jerry Sandusky

Jury selection beginsin case that has shocked nation amid claims of cover-up by officials

Washington

One of the most sensational and shocking child abuse cases in recent US history reached court in a sleepy central Pennsylvania town yesterday, with the start of jury selection for the trial of Jerry Sandusky, a former college football coach accused of molesting 10 young boys over a period of 15 years.

Sandusky, 68, protests his innocence. But he faces more than 50 criminal counts and – if convicted – could theoretically face 500 years in jail. Some of the charges relate to his period as assistant coach at Penn State University, and some of the alleged offences are said to have taken place on college grounds.

First, though, a jury must be chosen, and that often delicate task will be especially arduous on this occasion. The case would be notorious anywhere, but it is being tried in the local county court, just a few miles from the campus of Penn State, by far the largest institution and employer in the region.

As the 220-strong jury pool assembled, several were wearing Penn State insignia. A dozen worked at the college, others had had spouses who did, and one or two even knew Sandusky personally. The selection process could take days to complete. But Judge John Cleland told the potential jurors they would not be sequestered, meaning they can spend nights at home during a trial likely to last several weeks.

Even before it began, however, a separate controversy arose as the judge ordered that the children accusing Sandusky would have to give evidence under their real names, not pseudonyms as often happens in such cases. "Arguably any victim of any crime would prefer not to appear in court," Mr Cleland ruled. "But we ask citizens to do that every day in courts across the nation."

Prosecutors allege that between 1994 and 2009 Sandusky had physical contact with the boys, referred to in court documents as Victims 1 to 10, that ranged from tickling and a "soap battle" in a shower room at Penn State to oral and anal sex. Sandusky has publicly denied having sex, saying what took place was only "horseplay".

His indictment last November made headlines across the country. Perhaps more than the scandals involving the Catholic church here, it raised public awareness of the problem of child sex abuse, while putting the spotlight on the national sporting institution of college football.

Penn State long boasted one of the highest profile college football programmes under the legendary Joe Paterno, the head coach for 46 years, with Sandusky his much admired assistant for some 30 of them. When the scandal broke, the college's president was forced to resign and Mr Paterno was dismissed. He died two months later in January, aged 85.

The shock, however, still reverberates. Like the Catholic hierarchy, Penn State has been accused of carrying out a cover-up.

It emerged that Mr Paterno was first told of possible child sex abuse by his assistant as early as 2002. As required, he passed the reports to his superior, but the police were never notified and for years nothing happened.

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