By Rich A. Jensen
So, the Freeh report is out, and according to it, there was a ‘failure of leadership at Penn State.’ Louis Freeh himself pulled no punches during his press conference, even invoking God in his condemnation of the corrupt culture there.
And for the rest of us not at Penn State, not alums of Penn State and possibly not even football fans, it’s been a fantastic, a titanic, opportunity to sit in judgment of bureaucratic nebbishes and an old dead coach.
I’m not here to defend any of these people.
I’m here to remind you that all of these people are people. Just like you and me.
We want them to be villains, to rob them of their shared humanity. We don’t like facing the uncomfortable truth that we all know people like Schultz, Curley, Spanier and Paterno. It’s not comfortable for us to acknowledge the near certainty that people we know have been victims of child abuse in one form or another. It’s not pleasant to acknowledge that our first inclinations in similar circumstances would probably be the same as these men.
All of us like to think that we would handle things differently. I have never heard someone say, “Yeah, if I found out that so-and-so was a pedophile, I’d certainly cover for him.”
But that’s exactly what happens time and time again.
Abusers of every stripe, whether it’s sexual, physical or emotional thrive in environments that exist around us. Penn State is an outstanding but hardly unique instance of such an environment. Let’s walk through what went wrong at Penn State, and as we do so, instead of looking at what happened there, look at what’s happening where you are.
- Discomfort with the subject matter. Consider that Mike McQueary censored his description of what he saw out of respect for Paterno’s sensibilities and age. Sexual predators flourish in environments where the subject is taboo, hushed up or not dealt with in a forthright manner. The ‘unspeakable’ nature of what they do is itself a protection. If you are a parent, what steps are you taking to ensure that your children will feel comfortable being frank with you about what happens to them? If some form of abuse is brought to your attention, are you prepared to be frank and honest about what you are told?
To what extent was Sandusky’s conduct facilitated because his victims felt ashamed to fully disclose what happened to them? Because McQueary was too embarrassed to tell Paterno everything he saw?
- Identification with the perpetrator. “I just can’t believe he’d do that.” This is another protection which abusers enjoy. Abusers, typically, have rationalized their conduct to such an extent that, while they may recognize it as being ‘wrong’ to others, they have justified it to themselves. You aren’t going to see them slinking around, wearing black capes, masks, or sprouting horns and a tail. They have justified their conduct to themselves, and have no difficulty acting perfectly normal around you.
It is more than evident that Sandusky benefited from an unwillingness to credit the lurid accusations about him. Even apart from concern over the reputation of the football program, those responsible at Penn State evinced concern only for Sandusky.
When we know the perpetrator and do not know the victims, we can be misguided by our knowledge of the abuser. Few of us are trained to investigate claims of abuse, and if we dismiss reports of abuse instead of notifying those who are trained to investigate, we are making a decision we are not qualified to make.
- Broken/dysfunctional homes. Sandusky’s attorney called a witness who alleged that a victim’s mom had discussed the financial windfall she expected due to the abuse of her son. This was done to suggest that the victims concocted their stories in order to sue Penn State (and Sandusky). Of course, this victim was involved in Second Mile because he was an ‘at risk’ youth, because his mom was, apparently, the kind of person who could sell her kid’s body for a new house.
Abusers thrive in environments where normal human relationships have broken down. A child ‘at risk’ is a child without a support structure, a child who probably wouldn’t have a reliable guardian to which he or she could report abuse, if inclined to do so. It’s no surprise that Sandusky preyed on children from his charity. The charity was practically a funnel providing an endless stream of potential victims to him.
LaVar Arrington’s regrets, I think, speak for everyone who has missed signs of abuse, or unwittingly enabled an abuser: “my sadness and disappointment are growing as I realize that I knew this young man fairly well but didn’t grasp the full extent of what he was going through… Now I can see it with so much more clarity… I hate everything that has happened, and now I must admit I feel even worse, knowing what allegedly was happening so close to me, and that I was unaware.”
The world would be a better place if it were easier to do what is right. Jane Austen may well have been speaking to Spanier, Schultz, Curley and Paterno when she penned these words: “There is one thing, Emma, which a man can always do if he chooses, and that is his duty; not by maneuvering and finessing, but by vigour and resolution.”
It’s not easy to do what is right, but it is never excusable to do otherwise.
Terry had a great tweet last Thursday, “Take the energy you had earmarked to wag a finger at Penn State and instead use it to do something nice for a kid.”
In addition to that, we should take a lesson from Penn State and take a long hard look at whether we have prepared our children against people like Jerry Sandusky, and whether we ourselves are prepared for people like Jerry Sandusky. These people are out there, and they are eager to take advantage of our unwillingness to believe that people we know are capable of such cruelty.
About the author: Jensen is a smart guy and probably could do well in any occupation. That said, he has chosen to do the software thing.