Genesee Sun - Lighting the Region
- Category: Guest Columnists
- Published on Monday, 28 May 2012 20:28
- Written by Mike Williams
Wake Up Call: June 20, 2012
A Special Place in Hell
The ugliest US news story of the week past is undoubtedly the Jerry Sandusky trial, currently underway in State College, Pennsylvania, near Penn State University. That would be Sandusky, the rock-star big-time college football coach, assistant to Penn State’s late legendary head coach Joe Paterno. It was apparently well-known for decades, around campus, around town, and around the country, that Jerry really, really, liked little boys.
It’s a compelling case, featuring horrifying abuse, a number of shattered and unevenly articulate victims, at least one eyewitness, and a long history of offenses by a powerful celebrity swept under the rug by a criminally myopic University administration. In last week’s court events the prosecution presented its case, based largely on the graphic, gut-wrenching testimony of at least 7 victims.
I’ve read some specious academic arguments over the years that our attitudes towards sex with children are, to a significant degree, culturally based – like, say, Chinese foot-binding; that in certain countries or cultures it’s more common and accepted, and not the wicked taboo thing it is here. In other words, the badness of these things is relative. No matter. We will not take that bait today. There is a legitimate conversation to be had about the complex and ambiguous territory involving older adolescents and teen-age sexuality, and when exactly we stop calling them children. But here in America, in this one area we all pretty much agree. Sex with children is Abusive. Sick. Disgusting. Criminal. Really, Really Bad.
And yet, some of us don’t think so. Some of us think it’s relative. Some of us who run institutions like churches and big universities think that it’s not as bad as the potential damage, say, that might ensue to the Penn State football program if anyone found out.
Think about that idea for a moment. Try and get comfortable with it. The idea that other people – successful, important, powerful, decision-making people – think that way. Or, to be fair, some do. Some of them thought that the problem of screwing little boys wasn’t as important as their football program. Or their university. Or the big money that was on the table.
Some important, powerful, decision-making people in the Catholic Church thought that way too, and some still do. The reputation, the power, the influence, and no doubt the financial resources of the Catholic Church are more important than the past, present, and future victims of the global farm-system for sexual predators they’ve been keeping under wraps for decades, if not centuries.
Of course, thinking that way isn’t just a luxury of the powerful. There were full-blown riots in the streets of State College, PA, by so-called ordinary people – fans, students – when this story first broke and Paterno was fired. Riots over the unfairness of it all. (Here, and multiple video posts on YouTube) “What about our football program,” they raged; “Did you even think about that?”
It is of some comfort that much of the journalism around the Sandusky case, like most of that around the pedophile priest scandals, has risen above the sensational. Esquire magazine published a thoughtful and sensitive piece by Luke Dittrich, “In the Ruins of a Blue and White Empire,” online and in the June/July print edition (ironically, “The Fatherhood Edition”). Dittrich’s essay alternates between a narrative about “Victim #1,” as he is referred to in court documents, currently a high-school track athlete somewhere in Pennsylvania, and an interview with Jerry Paterno, the son of the late Joe Paterno (the son himself on the Penn State coaching staff), as he struggles to cope with the aftermath of the scandal. Among other things, it’s a serious public relations problem for Jerry, not only for the school, but for his family, and for him personally.
Did you notice how we use Jerry’s name, but not the other guy’s? Victim #1’s identity as a child abuse victim and a witness was eventually, inevitably, compromised. He was harassed, ostracized, and suffered vile verbal attacks at the hands of people ranging from fellow students to school administrators, even after changing schools.
Pathetic. But it is always the strategy of choice in the war on whistleblowers. Blame the victim. Shoot the messenger. The war on whistleblowers, which is probably the original endless war, is pretty much on display every day these days, though rarely under that name.
Since Watergate, it’s been gospel that the cover-up is usually an even bigger problem than the original crime itself. “What did he know, and when did he know it?” It’s the new investigative litany.
Don’t we all know that by now?
Apparently not – judging by the ongoing and reflexive tendency to bluff, minimize, dodge, and buy our way out of trouble. According to Dittrich,
The [Paterno] family has hired a crisis counselor named Dan McGinn, whose clients are usually major corporations like General Motors and Texaco. In the first days of the crisis, McGinn advised the family to be very circumspect and cautious, to maintain a dignified silence during the initial volleys levied against them. Now the reins are loosening. The family has begun to respond with sharply worded statements to what it views as the most egregious insults against them.
It’s a public relations problem.
I am hereby publicly renouncing everything negative I ever said about Maureen Dowd, the edgy New York Times columnist for whom the term “snarky” was probably invented. I take it all back. Dowd, who has written regularly about the Catholic pedophile priest scandal, has written about the Penn State story several times: on Nov 8, 2011, "Personal Foul at Penn State," when it first broke; and in recent weeks, as she covers the trial personally (June 12, 2012, “An American Horror Story” and again last week, June 16, 2012, “Moral Dystopia”). Her coverage has moved me to tears, and to rage, a number of times. And while it’s not likely to be her most widely quoted passage ever, she cuts through thick layers of defense and rhetoric in a short two sentences of the June 12 piece:
Like pedophile priests, Sandusky was especially vile because he targeted vulnerable boys. Later, when victims finally spoke up, there was a built-in defense: those boys were trouble; you can’t believe them.
Boys, children, like that are chosen. Troubled children make easy marks. And as Dowd says, they’re easy to dismiss, and look away from, and when that fails, to attack. And to abandon.
The week’s testimony included many incidents of Sandusky’s vile behavior, but the worst, for me as it is for Dowd, is the sad story of prosecution eye-witness Mike McQueary. In February 2001 McQueary, then a 28-year old graduate assistant coach in the football program, walked in on Sandusky in the Penn State shower room as he was raping a 10-year old boy. Caught in the act. Here is Dowd’s description of McQueary’s testimony:
Sandusky, Joe Paterno’s right hand, was grinding against a little boy in the shower in an “extremely sexual’ position,” their wet bodies making “skin-on-skin slapping sounds.” He met their eyes, Sandusky’s blank, the boy’s startled.
The story of what happened next – the actions, not the thoughts, the intentions, the feelings – over the next few weeks, is now completely clear. And it needs to be told again.
- McQueary, by all accounts a decent guy with a deeply troubled conscience, did not intrude, or interrupt the rape. He turned away.
- He did not call the police.
- McQueary went home and called his father for advice.
- He later went to head coach Joe Paterno’s home and told him.
- Paterno, the self-styled “moral compass” of the football program, sent McQueary home; the next day he told Tim Curley, the Athletic Director (and former Penn State quarterback).
- No one called the police.
- Curley waited a week-and-a-half, interviewed McQueary, who then repeated the story for Curley and for Gary Schultz, a University VP who also oversaw the campus police.
- No one called the police.
- Two weeks later, Curley told McQueary that he had taken away Sandusky’s keys to the locker room, and told Sandusky to stop bringing children on campus.
- Curley also told Graham Spanier, the University President.
- No one called the police.
- No one even called the University’s top lawyer.
- It got buried.
I remember a moment in one of the televised debates during the 2004 campaign for president. At a key moment, John Kerry looked directly into the camera and said, “I believe there’s a special place in hell reserved for Saddam Hussein.”
It’s odd, now that I think of it. They actually have a lot in common. I’m talking about Saddam Hussein; the bishops and archbishops and cardinals of the Catholic Church; and the coaches and administrators of Penn State University. They all have relatively unlimited power. And they all live under the protective umbrella of very powerful (and essentially male) systems, institutions, that hide and enable their crimes.
Well, I don’t believe in hell – at least, not as in something we might experience in the afterlife. We humans manage to do a pretty good job of making, and maintaining, multiple hells right here on earth.
But if I did believe, I would believe there is a special place in hell reserved for Jerry Sandusky.
I would believe there is a special place in hell reserved for responsible people who instead choose to look away when members of their club behave in vile, abusive, criminal ways. People like Mike McQueary, and Head Coach Joe Paterno, and Athletic Director Tim Curley, and Vice President Gary Schultz, and President Graham Spanier.
And I would believe there is a special place in hell reserved for the people whose most heartfelt response, when dreadful, abusive things happen to other people, is to shoot the messenger.
Previous columns by Mike Williams