Sunday, November 13, 2011

Penn State

I have to confess to being in a state of shock over the horrifying events that have been revealed at my alma mater, Penn State. Ten days ago, I was blissfully enjoying the fact that our football team was having a good year, and that the finishing touches were being put on a state-of-the-art hockey rink. I wondered when Joe Paterno would finally hang up his cleats. I regularly emailed and facebooked with fellow classmates, grateful for the time we had together on a beautiful campus. I practiced many of the skills I learned in my two years there, and reflected on the fact that State College was where my sons went sledding for the first time, my oldest child went to Kindergarten, and our family suffered great adversity that strengthened our love.

And then, gradually and shockingly, came revelations of a 12+ year history of abuse and cover-up. There are plenty of places to read all of the sordid details, so I will not belabor them here; by now, they are well known and most of you probably know more details than I do. For the purposes of this post, I am not going to disrespect you, the victims, or myself by saying that these things are "alleged"; they happened, and we all know it.

One of the most disturbing things about this situation, for me personally, is what I do NOT feel. I am horrified, appalled, disgusted, saddened, angry, betrayed, disappointed . . . . but I am not, on the whole, surprised.


I do not know and will never understand the emotional and psychological forces that lead someone to rape. I will never comprehend the hubris and helplessness that lead someone to abuse. And the notion of someone choosing to have sex with a child, regardless of what twisted pathways in their brains lead them to the act, is so far outside my framework of what is right and what is wrong that just thinking about it leaves me empty inside with an overriding sense that there is more evil in the world than I allow myself to think about.

When is it okay to force sex upon another human being? Never. When is it okay to think about or have sex with a child? Never. Anyone who is not a narcissistic sociopath knows and agrees with this. Simplistic? Maybe. I don't care. Forcible sex and sex with children is simply wrong, perhaps even more so when the victim is incapable of saying no or understanding the consequences of saying no. Forcible sex and sex with children is horrifying, perhaps even more so when the abuser is a mentor, an idol, a trusted confidante. Forcible sex and sex with children is inexcusable, perhaps even more so when the victim feels so strongly about the abuser that they would never want to do or say anything against their wishes, or that would get the abuser in trouble. And forcible sex and sex with children is evil, perhaps even more so when the abuser counts on the victim's reluctance to resist as an enabler and accelerator of the abuse.

Sexual abuse against a child is one aspect of this story, but it is not the only one. Because while this abuse was sexual, and against a child, it speaks to the larger of problem of abuse as a whole within our society. It speaks of the disrespectful, demeaning, and dehumanizing behavior we see in so many aspects of our lives. It speaks of the way so many of us have decided that abuse such as this, in many guises and many situations, is okay. We hold children to a higher standard than we hold ourselves, through coercion and manipulation. We hit kids in the name of teaching them lessons and responsibility. We distance ourselves emotionally from our children through belittling them and prioritizing our needs and wants over theirs. And we tell them that we do it all out of love.

When is it okay for an adult to force their own will upon a child, sexual or otherwise? Never.
When is it okay to demean another person by operating as though your needs and desires are the only ones that matter? Never. But we have, over time, allowed ourselves to view behaviors that are designed to control and force an outcome as good things, and necessary, and desirable, so we can raise everyone the "right" way. In actuality, all we have done is laid the groundwork for a climate in which disrespect has become the norm, even expected, in which our way is the right way regardless of how the other person feels about it. Forceful behavior is the antithesis of compassion and respect, two things that the world needs now more that ever, especially on a micro level. Yet, we persist.

The sexual abuse is unspeakable, and the psychological abuse is damaging to our society on so deep a level that most of us will never see it. But still, the problem goes deeper:

  • Men in a position of trust chose to violate that trust by not reporting the abuse.
  • Men in a position of trust chose to violate that trust by reporting it late.
  • Men in a position of trust chose to violate that trust by simply following procedure and stopping there.
  • They chose to keep the situation quiet, within the university, rather than reporting it to the police.
  • They chose to allow the abuser his dignity, without pausing to think of the victims - or the fact that your right to dignity ceases when you chose to rape a child.
  • Then they chose to allow a suspected - likely known - sexual predator to continue working with children on campus, within his charity, and in other scenarios.
  • And they chose to keep quiet, to pretend like it didn't happen, to allow the man to retire quietly while still maintaining a sacred place within the university community.
Supporters of the university administrators are quick to point out that none of these actions are illegal. That's all well and good, as far as it goes. I could probably write for hours about the injustices of our legal system, and how it is unlikely that any available legal remedy could ever come close to providing justice, should justice even be possible for the victims. I could write about power, and money, and privilege, and their impacts on the legal outcomes of this case. But for me, that is not the point.

The point is, when faced with this situation, numerous intelligent men chose to completely disregard their moral compasses.

Some did so out of fear for their jobs. Some did so out of concern for the way their public personas would be perceived. Some did so to preserve the prestige of the football program, or the university. Some did it because their relative power led to hubris. Some did it to preserve an "all for one, one for all" code. But they all did it.

All it would have taken is for one man to stand up and say "no." All it would have taken is for one person to call the police, or the abuser's wife, or the board members of the Second Mile. They could have banned him from campus, had him incarcerated, any number of things. But they chose to ignore what was right - inherently right, and right for the children the abuser came in contact with - and ignore their own moral compasses. And then, they covered it up, ignoring the relaties for more than 12 years, allowing him to victimize countless other children. I don't care whether or not they acted within the law. I don't care if they believe they acted in accordance with university ethics guidelines. Their fear and hubris led directly to children being abused.

I fear for a world in which intelligent, educated, successful men are led by their own desires and fears rather than by a sense of morality and responsibility for making the world a better place. Really, though, it's not just them. We all could do more, say more, stand up more, and put our own desires aside so that we could follow our own compasses more frequently. It's not always easy, it's not always safe for us personally. But it could save a child, save a spirit, save a life. To be sure, everyone's moral compass is a bit different. But no one's compass point toward child rape, or allowing child rapists to continue their behavior. We just have to have the courage to read our compasses more often.

Rodney Erickson, the new President of Penn State, said on Thursday that this was the worst week in the history of the University. I disagree. The worst week was the week that the abuser decided to rape a child for the first time. Or maybe the worst week was the week we allowed a known sexual predator to continue to rape children. It could be that the worst week was the week we decided to cover it up.

Or the worst week could be some week yet to come, when one of us sees something that makes our own compass go off, and turns away instead of acting.

3 comments:

  1. There are two facts that weren't considered in your well-constructed blog. First, there were at least two police officers that were aware of what was going on and yet no media outlet seems to want to pay attention to that important detail. Second, why are we demonizing coach Paterno for not calling police and not coach McQueary for doing the same thing?

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  2. I would just like to add that while at least almost everyone is horrified at the actions of these men and particularly the abuser, not many people are aware of the long term effects on a child being abused. It's not an unfortunate incident or series of incidents, it's an undermining of trust that often can never be repaired. Children and young adults look towards mentors, parents and authorities to protect them, to tell the truth, to have their backs no matter what. To be violated physically and emotionally and then to watch that person to be protected and their behavior excused creates a confusion that wounds so deeply it often never really heals.

    I grew up in a home where abuse (sexual, emotional and physical) abounded. Despite countless years in therapy and much healing, there are wounds that will never heal completely. My parents, who were the people I was supposed to be able to count on to protect me, couldn't even protect me from themselves.

    Most people who know me well, know many of the things that I grew up with. Yet, when the wounds show, when I'm insecure and unsure of myself, I'm often told that I should get over it. How I wish I could! Needless to say, this does not add to my healing, but only to my feeling that there is indeed something wrong with me (because why else would my parents be so mean to me?) Please believe me when I say it is not easy to "just get over it." It is way more complicated than that.

    The only solace in all of this is that I was able to break the pattern. I was somehow aware enough to love, listen, trust and protect my children. For that I am very grateful.

    Many abused children and young people grow up to repeat the abuse that was done to them. This, of course, just adds to the tragedy of the whole situation.

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  3. "But we have, over time, allowed ourselves to view behaviors that are designed to control and force an outcome as good things, and necessary, and desirable, so we can raise everyone the "right" way. In actuality, all we have done is laid the groundwork for a climate in which disrespect has become the norm, even expected, in which our way is the right way regardless of how the other person feels about it. Forceful behavior is the antithesis of compassion and respect, two things that the world needs now more that ever, especially on a micro level."

    I appreciate your wisdom on this. Spot-on.

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