Paul Nitze: Silence and stone-throwers
November 18, 2011
Imagine you run a small business – an auto detailing shop, say, or a restaurant. Would you fire an employee who witnessed another employee stealing from the business, but didn’t report it to you? Would you fire the same employee if he witnessed a brutal assault outside his house, on his own time, and failed to report it to the police? In neither case, except in a few narrow circumstances, would his silence violate Colorado law. But that excuse probably wouldn’t suffice, and I’ll bet you’d fire that employee in the first instance, and maybe also in the second.
By now you know I’m taking you on a trip to Happy Valley, Pa., where an insulated and insular community is reckoning with Jerry Sandusky and his silent enablers at Penn State. Joe Paterno, the most celebrated coach in college athletics, is out, as are Penn State’s president and a number of other top officials. Sandusky is accused of sexually assaulting at least 11 children who came into his orbit via The Second Mile foundation.
Like most district attorney’s offices, my former employer in Adams County has a child victim unit that handles cases like Sandusky’s. I wasn’t part of that unit, and I don’t claim special knowledge of prosecuting sexual assault against children. That said, I was well aware of why our office gave those cases special attention, and I couldn’t help but notice the difficulties of prosecuting any abuse against children.
Those subtleties have been lost in the national debate over the Sandusky cover-up. Opponents of college sports have leapt at a chance to link these alleged crimes to a broader moral crisis in college athletics. They’ve taken a page from Taylor Branch, the writer who savaged Division I football in a cover story in The Atlantic this summer.
Branch was basically right; big-time college sports is a swamp of hypocrisy, exploitation, corruption and double-talk. Oh, and it’s so popular that we’ll be channel surfing in the old-folks home before anything changes. But so far as I can tell, the Sandusky cover-up doesn’t have much to do with the rot in college football.
Start with the fact, pointed out by a raft of Penn State professors over the last couple of weeks, that Penn State has become a deeply serious research institution. If there is any university in the country that has actually converted football prestige into academic strength, Penn State might be the one. Perhaps Paterno isn’t solely responsible for this transformation. But surely the Brown University grad who endowed two professorships and insisted his athletes matriculate had something to do with it.
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Now consider the harsh and horrible truth that all forms of child abuse are underreported. Those who point to Paterno’s (and, to a lesser extent, Sandusky’s) status as campus gods as the primary explanation for the cover-up forget that it isn’t just the powerful who get away with hurting kids. Child sexual assault is the kind of crime that is so horrible, and so outside of most people’s comprehension, that it triggers willful blindness in those who witness it.
David Brooks makes this case in his column last Monday in The New York Times. Brooks hits the nail so squarely on the head that I can only bow to his insight. He takes readers on a brief but effective tour through the behavioral psychology of those who witness crimes. The takeaway? We will articulate a duty to report immoral behavior, but when it comes time to act on that duty, we fail. In Brooks’s words, we have a “natural tendency to evade and self-deceive.”
For reasons we only partly understand, child abuse aggravates this tendency. Children can’t protect themselves, and their abusers are almost always people in a position of trust, usually a close friend or family member. Witnesses are tied to the abusers by blood or affinity. The shame of the crime is infectious and prevents witnesses from coming forward. It’s for these reasons that Colorado, like Pennsylvania, requires those who come into regular contact with kids to report suspected abuse. Failure to do so can be prosecuted, as top athletic officials at Penn State are finding out.
This problem is universal and has little or nothing to do with the peculiar privileges of a Division I football program. Brooks is right to target the gasping stone-throwers who can’t imagine how Paterno didn’t go to the police. From what we know, and we will learn a lot more before this is over, Paterno’s failure to go to the police is worthy of condemnation. Only it’s a sin for which any one of us could be guilty.
Where I part ways with Brooks is in his conclusion that our decadent culture, without moral anchors, leads us to “deny the underside of our own nature.” We live in a strange new world of behavioral psychology. Our old moral order has been washed away, and in its place we have constructed a scaffolding of Enlightenment values mixed with brain research. And it’s a bit disorienting, to say the least.
Sandusky’s alleged crimes, and their long cover-up, aren’t the product of this new order. Rather, our old institutions, the Catholic Church foremost among them, failed to address our deeply human failure to prevent the abuse of kids. Laws like those on the books in Colorado and Pennsylvania are the product of new insights, and they stand as major improvements. When we fail despite those efforts, it merely signals how much farther we have to go.
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