Saturday, November 12, 2011

Reflections on the Penn State Scandal

The sports world was shocked when it was discovered that Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky allegedly used his position to molest young boys. It was also discovered that head coach Joe Paterno apparently knew about one allegation, but failed to report it to the police.
Paterno apparently reported the alleged incident to his bosses without notifying the police. Paterno acted rightly according to the letter of the law, but not the spirit. He himself admitted as much, saying: “With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”
Clearly, Paterno was wrong, and people are right to condemn his inaction. But the hatred vented towards Paterno has been vitriolic and insanely hyperbolic; people have even accused him of being a supporter of child molestation himself and disgustingly compared him with the Pope.
Perhaps those people stridently calling for Paterno’s head should take a good, hard look in the mirror before they condemn him.
Some studies indicate that about one-sixth of boys and a quarter of girls in America are sexually abused in their lifetime. That is a staggering number of cases of sexual abuse. If those figures are correct, that means that millions of children suffered from sexual abuse at some point in their lives. Many of them suffer at the hands of abusers for years.
(On a personal level, I know several people who have confided to me they have been sexually abused, and I think it is a safe assumption that there are many more I do not know about. And chances are very good that you, dear readers, know people who have been abused as well.)
But sexual abuse does not occur in a vacuum. Is it possible that Paterno was the only person in America to fail to live up to his duty in fully reporting abuse? Not likely. Far too many "missed opportunities arise" in catching sexual abusers. And many people fail to do their part in catching suspected molesters. 

Many of those calling for Paterno’s head, if placed in the same position he was in, would have done the exact same thing he did if placed in the same position – bump the complaint up to a higher authority, and move on from there. It is the cowardly and safe thing to do. And morally, it is wrong.  
Good, honorable men and women fail to do their part – and far more often than we might like to admit. The famous quote (misattributed to Edmund Burke) holds true: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

It seems that this was the case for Joe Paterno. A man who by all accounts was good and honorable in his personal life failed to live up to his duty - an all-too-common occurrence.  
Yes, Paterno was ethically weak, and could have done more to stop the suspected abuse. Yes, he should be criticized for his failure of judgment, and perhaps even be forced to resign.
But those calling for his head should measure their criticisms, until they are tested similarly. The Gospel of Matthew eloquently expresses why: “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” (Matthew 7:1)