A similar pattern occurred in the Catholic Church. Even those who disagree with its structure or doctrines have to concede that it’s a great force for good. It’s a paragon of selfless service that gives solace to a billion souls while providing education, health care, housing and food to some of the most destitute people around the world. And yet, it has responded to the pedophilia scandal in a shameful way.
I don’t know much about the people at Horace Mann but The Times article suggests that they, too, were known as caring individuals. And the list goes on. As I discussed this issue with colleagues and friends, almost all of them mentioned a similar incident at their school, summer camp or sports league.
It’s easy to take another view of these people. Perhaps their protection of pedophiles revealed the rotten core they skillfully hid from the rest of us. But this provides too easy an answer. It allows us to damn and dismiss them, to assure ourselves that they are not like us.
I draw a different lesson. It’s that good people are capable of terrible acts. I don’t know how I would have responded if I were confronted with a crime whose exposure would destroy the very things I’d spent a lifetime building, but the way others who have faced such circumstances have reacted offers a clue — and should give all of us pause. There are precious few, if any, people who have exposed such abuse at profound risk to themselves or their institutions.
Then what? This fact ought to inspire us to have more empathy when considering people like Paterno. Once we admit that the distance between them and us is not a chasm, we are better equipped to understand and assess their conduct.
But the truth about their actions — far from unimaginable, they are disturbingly predictable — runs counter to the needs of civil society. Evil may often be banal, but it’s still evil. As Freud observed in “Civilization and Its Discontents,” society was not invented to regulate the interactions of people as nature made us. It was created in large part to control our worst instincts, to inspire and coerce us to act in ways that protect one another.
That’s why our harsh response to Paterno was necessary. Society must send the strongest signal that such behavior is absolutely unacceptable. We play a role in this drama by speaking as one about what a citizen must do, all but ignoring what many people would actually do. Stigmatization, which can be a powerful force for good (or ill), has lost much of its power during the last half century. Its application to Paterno shows how useful it can be when applied properly.
And yet, it’s not so simple. Neither the assistant coach, Mike McQueary, nor the janitors who witnessed or knew about Sandusky’s crimes were condemned as fiercely as Paterno. Perhaps this is a tacit acknowledgement that we really don’t expect people to come forward in such cases. It may also reflect the fact that we like public scandals to have a small number of villains because it’s easier to distance ourselves from the few than the many.
What these cases reveal is the wide gulf between our pronounced horror at molestation and our much more complicated response to it. We must denounce people like Paterno, but not take too much comfort in our righteousness. For it can prevent us from searching our souls and finding the potential darkness within us all.
J. Peder Zane is Chairman of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at St. Augustine’s University. He operates the website www.TopTenBooks.net.
Correction: The incident where a coach witnessed Sandusky allegedly raping a boy occurred in 2001. An earlier version of this article stated that it occurred in 1998.