Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Penn State Sexual Abuse Scandal

I'm probably going to piss off a lot of people with this post, and alienate other people, and maybe get through to a couple as well. But I'm too upset with what I hear from too many people to not talk about this.

By now, most people know the testimony. Former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky is accused of molesting eight different young boys over a 15-year period. Head coach Joe Paterno comes into the picture in 2002, when graduate assistant Mike McQueary observed Sandusky doing something to a young boy in a locker room shower (his grand jury testimony says sodomy, the testimony by Penn State higher-ups says McQueary reported a more vague level of fondling or other sexual contact; either way, up to no good). McQueary spoke to his father, who told him to speak to Paterno, and things went up the ladder, where a decision was made to bar Sandusky from bringing children to the campus.

How many people here are morally culpable? Probably everyone. But there's an order to things, and Paterno is not at the top of the list. How would I sort the villainy? Well, starting here:


Let's not lose sight of the actual situation. Jerry Sandusky is a sick and deplorable human being. He's far and away the villain here, since, you know, he was the guy who was actually raping children. Everyone else who's at fault (and there are plenty) would've never been put in a position to disappoint if Sandusky just wasn't a monster.

Mike McQueary

McQueary actually witnessed Sandusky in the act of committing one of these crimes, and what did he do? He called his dad and asked him what to do, then called Paterno the next day. McQueary was 28 at the time of the incident. He was a grown-ass man who saw another man raping a child, and did nothing. I can maybe understand being scared; it's an inconceivable thing to see, and in seeing it, you have to think that the perpetrator is capable of anything. So maybe you're too frightened to confront the guy alone. But come on. I'm sure other people were in the building; get a mob together if you're scared. And if nothing else, you call the cops.

The report said that both Sandusky and the victim made eye contact with McQueary at the time of the incident. So that kid saw an adult come across him being assaulted, and the adult walked away, and left him with his assailant. If we're making a list of things that will do severe psychological damage to a child, that's got to be on that list somewhere.

University President Graham Spanier
University Vice President Gary Schultz

Athletic Director Tim Curley

Curley was the person to whom Paterno reported what he heard from McQueary. Curley, along with Schultz, are the two people held legally responsible for their failure to report this incident to law enforcement authorities. They also both face perjury charges for what is believed to be dishonest or incomplete testimony to the grand jury.

Additionally, some combination of these three individuals came up with the response plan for Sandusky's assault, which was to take away his locker room keys and ban him from bringing children onto campus. ESPN's Jay Bilas addressed the toothlessness of this "punishment" perfectly by interpreting the message from Spanier as essentially saying, "Just don't do it here." It indicates an utter disregard for morality, and a complete focus on preserving university image. It's complicit, and disgusting.

Centre County District Attorney Ray Gricar

This excerpt is from an ESPN article available here:
Victim 6 is taken into the locker rooms and showers when he is 11 years old. When Victim 6 is dropped off at home, his hair is wet from showering with Sandusky. His mother reports the incident to the university police, who investigate.

Detective Ronald Schreffler testifies that he and State College Police Department Detective Ralph Ralston, with the consent of the mother of Victim 6, eavesdrop on two conversations the mother of Victim 6 has with Sandusky. Sandusky says he has showered with other boys and Victim 6's mother tries to make Sandusky promise never to shower with a boy again but he will not. At the end of the second conversation, after Sandusky is told he cannot see Victim 6 anymore, Schreffler testifies Sandusky says, "I understand. I was wrong. I wish I could get forgiveness. I know I won't get it from you. I wish I were dead."

Jerry Lauro, an investigator with the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare, testifies he and Schreffler interviewed Sandusky, and that Sandusky admits showering naked with Victim 6, admits to hugging Victim 6 while in the shower and admits that it was wrong.

The case is closed after then-Centre County District Attorney Ray Gricar decides there will be no criminal charge.

Nice work, counselor. Way to serve and protect.

Head Coach Joe Paterno

Paterno is the face of Penn State, and there's no denying that this happened on his watch. There's also no denying that Paterno was aware of something involving Sandusky; he has admitted as much, and said that he wishes he had done more, in hindsight.

We don't know what Paterno really knew. We know his testimony indicated that he was aware of an incident occurring between Sandusky and a child, and others' testimony corroborates that. We also know that he didn't hear about the incident from McQueary until the day after the event, and he was undoubtedly aware that McQueary apparently didn't think enough of the incident to contact the police at all. What we know now about Sandusky's continued harassment makes the choice obvious, but given the limited information regarding this one incident, and the question marks about the words McQueary actually used to describe the incident, and the fact that Paterno had known Sandusky for thirty-odd years, it's not cut and dry.

Consider your own job. Imagine a subordinate (we're talking about your job, because I have no subordinates to imagine) reported to you that another employee was engaged in a sexually inappropriate act with a child. Your main responsibility is to put that subordinate in touch with the appropriate person at your organization, or if you are the appropriate person, to get in touch with the authorities. After connecting the relevant parties, it's not your business anymore.

Paterno got Curley involved. Curley conducted his investigation (however much of a sham it might have been), came to his conclusions (however blind), and implemented his resolution (however insufficient). We don't know what Paterno was told about this process. It's not inconceivable that he was lied to by Curley and Schultz about the investigation, since those two are already suspected of lying to the grand jury.

Jemele Hill wrote a piece for ESPN (applauding Penn State for firing Paterno) that includes the following paragraph:
"For those who continue to cling to the notion that because Paterno fulfilled his legal obligation, he should be allowed to finish this season on his own terms, I pose this question: If that 10-year-old in the showers with Sandusky was your brother, cousin, nephew, friend or neighbor, would you be satisfied with how Paterno handled the situation?"
First, I think we can all agree that if it was your brother, you would want Penn State University brought to the ground. Not metaphorically; literally leveled with dynamite and wrecking balls. And you wouldn't care who was inside. You would just want someone to pay, and the more people who pay, the better. So let's try to appreciate that adding that level of emotion isn't going to result in reasoned discourse.

Second, flip the switch. What if Sandusky was your brother? Your cousin? Your friend? Wouldn't you look for ways, consciously or subconsciously, to convince yourself that the worst isn't true? Wouldn't you want to get your hands off the situation and put it in the hands of people whose responsibility it was to handle these kinds of situations?

American media, particularly sports media, tends to try to look at everything in a vacuum. One of my favorite shows, PTI, consistently asks un-nuanced all-or-nothing questions of its hosts. And maybe the best part of PTI is that Michael Wilbon and especially Tony Kornheiser offer decidedly measured and broad-scope responses to these questions. Taking the whole picture into account shouldn't be so rare.

But as I peruse through Facebook messages, and Twitter posts, and the comments attached to the various articles regarding this horrific story, I find very little in the way of thoughtful discussion. What's more troublesome is that I also haven't found much among those people who are paid to be insightful, like ESPN's Hall.

Another couple quotes from Hall's article:

"There have been 40 counts of felony sex abuse of minors levied against former Paterno assistant Jerry Sandusky, and though I am sickened by what Sandusky is accused of, our judicial system presumes his innocence until he is proved guilty.

But we're free to judge Paterno outside the constricts of the law. A lengthy indictment spells out what he did (or, more disturbing, what he failed to do) and what he knew."

"If Sandusky is proved guilty, he is obviously the worst monster in this sordid horror story. But it isn't a stretch to suggest that Paterno played the role of Dr. Frankenstein. He didn't create the monster, but if Sandusky is guilty, then Paterno is at least partially responsible for the tragedies of every one of the victims assaulted after that unidentified boy in the shower."

Throughout the article, Hall acknowledges that Sandusky's guilt is yet to be determined, and she consistently uses terms like "accused of" and "alleged." Paterno receives the benefit of no such doubt.

My last point here is in response to Hall's last point, and a point that is going to echo in the voice of every sportscaster on the planet, and I'm going to be angry about it every time. She declares that Penn State was courageous for ousting Joe Paterno. Her claim is that today's world sees football coaches as the "final authority" for high profile schools, and it's important that the Penn State board of trustees exercise their authority here.

My final response to that is my own post on a friend's comment on Facebook from last night:
"Everyone's mad. But Paterno leaving the school isn't going to make anyone less angry or hurt or disgusted or shocked. His departure is a front page story for a couple days, then PSU gets to shrink away while other tragedies (and other sports stories) overtake it, and the general public will forget and move on. But a lot of good people who rely on Penn State football for a thousand different reasons are going to suffer. What Sandusky did was damnable and shameful. What's happening to Paterno is just a damn shame."


Anonymous said...

Very astute analysis. Nothing is accomplished by firing Paterno before the end of his contract, except to quell the storm of media criticism and outrage, and to embarrass a man who may not live to see his name cleared. The Board members are cowards who chose damage control at the expense of fairness and justice.

Anonymous said...

Very well written. I liked this a lot. I agree whole heartedly and have not seen it said better elsewhere.

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