Joe Paterno, the Catholic Church and the darkness within us all

The seventh-grade ski trip was infamous at my school. One of the teachers had allegedly crept into a student’s sleeping bag and molested him. By the time I had enrolled, the teacher was gone.

I never asked where he went, though I know it wasn’t prison. The story lived on not as a tale of scandal but as a salacious piece of gossip. I don’t know if it’s true; I am convinced that if I knew about it, so did everyone else, including the school’s leaders. Tellingly, I never gave it a second thought. It was just something that happened.

I began to wonder this summer if the teachers and administrators who had shaped my life in profoundly wonderful ways could have engaged in a cover-up. My questions were sparked by an article in The New York Times Magazine that exposed incidents of child molestation at the elite Horace Mann School in Riverdale, New York a generation ago (my generation). Faced with unspeakable crimes, faculty, administrators and many students chose silence.

The article dovetailed with the far larger story that has unfolded at Penn State, where the late football coach Joe Paterno chose to protect his program instead of defenseless youths when he was told that his longtime assistant, Jerry Sandusky, was a child molester.

Then, of course, there’s the ongoing scandal involving pedophile priests and their enablers in the Catholic Church. A story in Saturday’s New York Times, “Defying Canon and Civil Law, Diocese Failed to Stop a Priest,” described the latest incident of cover-up and shame that has plagued the church.

Much attention has focused on the clear pattern of gross criminal misbehavior that occurred in all these cases. We can all imagine good reasons why someone might steal or even commit murder; except for rape, child molestation may be the only crime that’s unjustifiable under any circumstances. The animalistic attack upon innocent youths is a denial of the civility, restraint and morality that separates us from beasts and makes us human. It’s an assault not just on individuals but on the fabric of society.

When such cases come to light, society speaks in a single voice of condemnation. No one urges us to take pity on, or try to understand, the guilty. The perpetrators and their enablers become pariahs for having acted in ways that are not just evil but — we all claim — unimaginable. If we had been in Joe Paterno’s shoes, we would have acted differently. We would have gone right to the police, no matter the consequences.

It’s this response, this false assumption that informs almost all the commentary about these cases, which interests me. It highlights the deep tension between the concept of truth and the requirements of civilization — between how people actually behave and how we demand that they should.

My starting point — which some may disagree with — is that all the enablers in these high-profile abuse cases were good people. Until late last year, Paterno was extolled as a model of rectitude because he truly embodied the best values of college athletics. For decades he ran a top-flight football program distinguished by the character and academic achievement of its athletes. Paterno was also a deeply generous man who donated millions of dollars to his school while supporting many charities.

Paterno was not a saint. But he was better than most. To now say that he was, behind it all, a selfish and evil man is to erase much of his life. No, he was a good man who allowed monstrous acts to occur.

He was not the only person who covered up Sandusky’s crimes. The coach who told Paterno in 2001 that he had seen Sandusky raping a child in the showers never called the police. Neither did the school administrators to whom Paterno reported the incident. Neither did the janitor who reportedly saw Sandusky raping a boy on campus in 2000 or the two other janitors who were aware of the crime. To them we might add the many others who saw Sandusky with children, a few of whom must have had some inkling that something was not quite right.

Not one of them reported Sandusky to the police.