Joel Achenbach / The Washington Post

BELLEFONTE, Pa. — Sound problems have plagued the Jerry Sandusky trial. The defense attorney struggles to hear witnesses over the throb of the ceiling fans. The judge, concerned, has urged members of the jury to tell him if they can’t hear.

But the trial, in which Sandusky faces 52 counts related to child sex abuse, has exposed deeper problems with communication. Lurking throughout this case is the sound of silence.

For years, according to testimony last week, people who had suspicions about Sandusky said nothing, or didn’t follow up, or convinced themselves that what they were seeing was harmless.

Joe Miller, a wrestling coach, testified that one night he stumbled upon Sandusky and a small boy lying face to face on a mat in a weight room. Sandusky quickly declared that they were practicing wrestling moves, Miller said. After telling Sandusky to turn out the lights and lock up, Miller had a moment of doubt, he said. But he reassured himself:

“Well, it’s Jerry. Jerry Sandusky. He’s a saint. What he’s doing with these kids is fantastic.”

The prosecution presented its case last week, and the defense attorneys for the former Penn State assistant football coach are expected to have their turn starting today. But this trial in a vintage county courthouse is shaping up as more than simply a matter of one man’s guilt or innocence. There’s a shadow trial under way, because if the prosecution’s case is correct, many people and important institutions failed to keep Sandusky from preying on boys despite direct eyewitness evidence that he was a pedophile.

A 1998 investigation of Sandusky generated no charges. According to testimony last week, a janitor told his colleagues in 2000 that he’d just seen Sandusky assault a boy in a shower. A few months later, an assistant coach, Mike McQueary, saw another shower attack, he testified. Yet Sandusky continued to have access to children for years. In November, he was arrested, and the prosecution has described him as a serial predator.

The question of broader culpability will eventually materialize in actual courtrooms. The biggest, richest target of lawsuits is Penn State, Sandusky’s former employer. One such suit has already been filed. Penn State’s president, Rodney Erickson, said in interviews before the Sandusky trial that the university will seek to settle the civil cases quickly to keep the alleged victims from being forced to retake the stand.

Those witnesses labored last week through painful testimony. Some sobbed; others were stoic. They often spoke of their own silence — how humiliation and shame kept them from speaking up sooner. They buried, or compartmentalized, the incidents. “I wanted to forget. I was embarrassed,” said a young man identified as “Victim 5” in last fall’s grand jury report, which first detailed the allegations.

The silence extended to the alleged abuse. The first witness to testify, “Victim 4,” said that throughout the period that Sandusky was abusing him, neither Sandusky nor the boy discussed it. “It was basically like whatever happened there never really happened,” he said.

Thus the first full week of the Sandusky trial was something of a tutorial on the nature of sexual abuse. For many people, the subject is literally unspeakable.

Key witness McQueary described his own silence when, he said, he saw Sandusky assaulting the boy in the locker room shower late one evening. He said he was extremely flustered. He slammed his locker door as a signal that someone was watching. He made eye contact with the man and boy in the shower, he said, but there was “no verbiage, no spoken word at all,” McQueary testified.

He said that when he told his father, and later his boss, legendary coach Joe Paterno, what he’d seen, he didn’t use explicit language because he wanted to show “respect” for the sensibilities of the older men.

Paterno told his superiors, but an inquiry resulted in no charges and Sandusky continued to use Penn State facilities. McQueary said he would quickly leave the weight room whenever Sandusky entered. When other people asked about his obvious aversion to Sandusky, he said he’d answer, “I just don’t care to be around him.”

At one point a defense attorney cross-examined John McQueary, the father. He said that when his son told him by phone about the assault, he advised his son to get out of the building.

“What would your son have had to tell you that night for you to call 911?” the defense attorney asked.

John McQueary answered: “He would have had to tell me he saw somebody injured, crying, screaming for — I, I don’t know the answer to that. That sounds like it’s sort of ‘what if’ to me. I don’t know what he would have had had to tell me. Whatever he saw was over by the time he told me. It’s not like I walked in on it.”