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.
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.