A child rapist and those who knowingly let his offenses go unpunished may not be moral equivalents, but, as we’re learning this week from Penn State, inaction can have dire consequences.
I’m sickened by the abuse perpetrated by Jerry Sandusky, but frankly, reading the grand jury report, I’m even more disturbed by the number of people who witnessed everything—from blatantly criminal activity (anal rape and forced oral sex) to highly suspicious behavior (a man in his 50s and 60s giving bear hugs to naked boys in the shower)—and never reported a single incident to the police. No one blew the whistle. In order to enable Sandusky to continue abusing boys for nearly two decades (and those are just the times we know about) a shocking number people had to turn a blind eye or leave the situation for someone else to handle.
But that’s exactly what so many did. Numerous people along the way—from the janitor who discovered Sandusky pinning a boy against a shower wall and performing oral sex on him to the graduate assistant who stumbled on Sandusky sodomizing a 10-year-old in the shower—informed their higher-ups of what they had witnessed. But then they walked away, putting faith in those higher-ups and assuming that someone else would handle the situation. No one wanted to be the person to rock the boat, and some (like the janitor mentioned in the grand jury report) were desperately afraid of losing their jobs.
Of course, blame ultimately lies at the top. With power, after all, comes responsibility. But the top dogs—who clearly felt they had much to lose—were blinded by selfish, willful ignorance. (For instance, a first-hand account of anal rape conveniently morphed into accusations of “horsing around” in the showers.) A group of administration officials seemingly desperate to make the situation just go away did as little as they possibly could. Even the punishment they did agree to was barely a slap on the wrist: an admittedly unenforceable ban on Sandusky bringing children to campus was practically a green light to continue molesting young boys so long as it was done off school grounds.
But unless you believe that Joe Paterno, Tim Curley, Gary Schultz, Graham Spanier, and countless others are all monsters completely devoid of morality (and statistically speaking, it seems unlikely to have that many sociopaths in one place), we need to ask how it’s possible that so many reasonable men could have shirked their legal and moral responsibilities. One explanation may be some version of the sociological phenomenon known as the bystander effect: the idea that the larger the numbers of bystanders, the less the likelihood someone will step forward to help a victim. In short, no one handles it because everyone assumes someone else will. A more straightforward explanation might be simply that Sandusky was just another member of an Old Boys Club that always protects its members.
To be fair, I don’t think gender explains everything about the Penn State scandal. But I do think it’s noteworthy that this story only involves men. These Penn State college football men make up a very powerful club, one with lots of prestige, influence, and money. I’ll add that the Catholic Church—infamous for its own pattern of harboring pedophiles—is also an old boys' club, albeit one of a very different sort. There seems to be something distinctly masculine about the type of cowardice that allows one to prioritize loyalty to powerful institutions and friends over protecting children. Can you imagine this many women knowing or suspecting that a child molester was in their midst and not bringing in the police?
In order to understand what happened at Penn State, it’s also important to recognize that people like Sandusky, people who do terrible things—despicable, criminal things—are not bad all the time. Sandusky, besides being a pedophile and rapist, is a human, and humans are social animals who crave community and social acceptance. I don’t know Sandusky, but I’d be surprised if he wasn’t desperately crafting a respectable public image to cover for his despicable private behavior. After all, rapists, murderers, and other assorted criminals always have friends and neighbors who express shock at the criminal’s true nature. How many times have you heard someone on the news say, “He always seemed like a good guy to me”? Ultimately, our culture has a loyalty problem: We prefer to remain loyal to those we know and like, even in the face of mounting evidence that they’re doing something very wrong. It’s just easier.
But the right thing to do is rarely the easy thing.
That is specifically why we need whistle-blowers. All the men who enabled Sandusky to continue his pattern of abuse deserve whatever punishment they receive. They are culpable. But this case is also a stark reminder that while it’s easy for us to summon righteous indignation now, it was obviously much harder than it ought to have been for so many men along the way to pick up the phone, dial 911, and say: “A prominent man in my community is molesting young boys.” Maybe some feared backlash that would cost them their jobs. Maybe others were in denial. Maybe folks worried that no one would believe them.
What’s clear is that while our culture does a spectacular job of making heroes out of football legends, we do an exceedingly poor job of valuing brave people of conscience who prioritize doing the right thing even in the face of personal repercussions. If we want to avoid more Catholic Church scandals or Penn States, we need fewer people afraid of rocking the boat and more who are unwilling to stay silent. If there was ever a moment in recent memory when it’s clear just how important whistleblowers are, this is certainly it.