The Penn State Pedophile: Were those in charge complicit of child abuse or just paralyzed by it?

November 14, 2011

First off, I know I should be writing about advertising, media and popular culture but this heinous story has gripped me since day one. In a very real way I need to write about it just to get through it. Before anything else, I’m a human being and parent. I need to believe most people are good deep down, not the other way around. What comes next is not an expected opinion (I’ve already had all of those) but a consideration of how and why so many men of leadership saw nothing, heard nothing and said nothing…

There is a moment in the Penn State scandal that, for me, crystallizes 15+ years of this ugly and awful affair: the evening in 2002 when Mike McQueary happened upon Jerry Sandusky raping a 10-year-old boy. In the worst sense of the phrase it was a “defining moment.” For had McQueary done the right thing, stopping the rape and alerting the authorities, a monster would have been caught. Instead McQueary ran away and told his father, beginning what would become an epic fail by the leadership at Penn State University.

Why did McQueary act (or not act) the way he did? Many have speculated it was cowardice or fear. But what was he scared of: A naked old man? Losing his job? Upsetting the integrity of his beloved Penn State program? These are some of the accusations being levied at Mike McQueary but I don’t think any of them are correct. Reasonable assumptions. But at that moment nothing was reasonable. My theory: when McQueary saw what he saw all reason was lost. Witnessing an old man he knew and respected (and maybe even loved), hunched over naked, violating a little boy was simply too much information, in effect crashing his hard drive. McQueary was paralyzed. The primal instincts of fight or flight took hold and he chose, alas, to flee.


Mike McQueary. What was he thinking?

As suggested by many reporters and commentators (myself included) he should have pulled the boy away and beat the hell out of Sandusky. In his shoes, they would have. But as I think about it, I wonder…

True, in movies and television the coward runs and the hero fights. While the karate teacher might tell the pupil never to use his deadly force we are only satisfied when the student kicks some ass. In real life it seldom plays out that way. For example, when kidnapped baseball player, Wilson Ramos was rescued last week he claims to have “hid under a bed.” Do we call Ramos –a strong, young athlete- a coward for cowering? No.

None of this is to suggest McQueary is or isn’t a coward. Just that his fleeing is understandable. Any one of us might have done the same thing. I can only hope I would have taken out my cell phone and called 911.

Back to that sickening moment in the showers… Is it possible McQueary couldn’t believe his own eyes? Then likewise his father, upon being told, couldn’t believe it either? When someone reports the unbelievable we usually question the reporter. It was dark in there? Were you drinking? By the time the story got to Grandpa Paterno it might as well have been about aliens. Thus anal rape became “horsing around.”


Jerry Sandusky arrested…finally.

Believing a trusted friend, a beloved priest, or a respected football coach could do such a thing requires more than courage. It means we must let go our entire conception of humanity.

Yes, those young boys (and who knows how many others) needed McQueary, his father, Paterno and countless others to do just that: believe the unbelievable. That they couldn’t is sickening and sad but regretfully understandable. Ask yourself: What would you do if you saw a loved one molesting a child? The history of child abuse suggests most people do nothing.

9 Responses to “The Penn State Pedophile: Were those in charge complicit of child abuse or just paralyzed by it?”

  1. Scotty Bergstein said

    Thank you for having the guts to write this very unpopular view of the situation. Everyone would love to think that they would’ve stopped the atrocity in the shower when they saw it. Hell, I’d love to believe that I would’ve stopped it. As a human, you HAVE to believe that. But I’ve been arguing for the past week, that it is possible that McQueary didn’t believe his eyes that night. And, subsequently, Paterno simply couldn’t come to grips with what McQueary told him. (As you say ‘question the reporter’). While, yes, in hindsight, they both should have done much more, it is very possible that they thought they had done the right thing. Hopefully, the world learns from this. Hopefully, we all won’t hesitate to act in the future.

    • SRP said

      Scotty- I am glad I am not the only one getting past popular opinion on this. Thank you.

    • Tracy said

      I’ve heard parallels made between this and the death of a DC-area woman this year, beaten to death in her workplace– which employees of an adjacent business (an Apple store, I believe) heard through the wall. No one called 911, let alone investigated the commotion. Common decency prays we’d find a way to stop the immediate situation but anecdotal evidence implies our reactions would include fear, a reluctance to “get involved” and of course disbelief. Not to mention that, for as increasingly connected as we are, we’re also more insular, less a part of community. I notice people behaving as though the world around them, outside their own personal bubble-universes, were TV or not quite real. I’ve wished McQueary could have, at the very least, made some noise, slammed a door or found a way to stop the assault, even if he didn’t want to directly confront it. I’ve also (un-popularly) argued that he was one cog in a very big, very expensive wheel. We don’t really know about the culture of his workplace, the systems and the policies (especially the unwritten ones) he worked within. You can be fairly sure there were procedures, official and not, in place for dealing with all kinds of crises — considering what high-profile, student athletes could conceivably get up to. And, then, when the story goes from eyewitness to secondhand? There’s the fear of falsely tarring someone as a child molester. It was, as someone wrote over the weekend, a tragic mess, fumbled from one stage to the next.

  2. Jeff Jones said

    I had this debate at a party this weekend. You, as usual, captured this in a way most could not. And as much as I hate to agree something like like could happen this way…I agree.

  3. Charletta Lynn Barton said

    I think it is quite plausible that Mike McQueary was gripped by fear, disgust, and embarrassment. He probably didn’t want to face or believe what his eyes were seeing. Jerry Sandusky was a trusted pillar of the community who had done many good works. It was likely extremely difficult for Mike McQueary to even speak about it and he may have hoped others would have taken his initial report and done more with it. Most of us would like to think that we would have immediately reacted and many of us would have indeed interrupted the ordeal in attempts to protect that child. However, I find this situation to difficult to judge other than to say it is evil and disturbing in the worst way. I don’t think protecting Penn State entered McQueary’s mind. I feel he just wanted to run away and escape the knowledge of what he witnessed. It takes a lot of courage for survivors of sexual abuse to talk about it. I know firsthand that it isn’t easy. I can imagine that it isn’t any easier for a witness to such a crime. The real criminal is the perpetrator, Jerry Sandusky. Yet, it is the nature and number of victims that makes it very difficult to forgive anyone who knew about the assault and did nothing. As a matter of fact, I think anyone could have made an anonymous call to the state police or Children’s Protective Services as that would have been better than doing close to nothing which is in actuality what happened. I am a wife, mother, and a human being. It will be easy for me to sleep well with all those connected with this ordeal spending the rest of their lives in prison. Head Coach Joe Paterno is not directly responsible for any of it, but he didn’t do enough to inform the public that a child molester was roaming the halls of the university. However, I do understand the affections of students and alumni. Yet, I find none of that to be good enough to cause me to have compassion for anyone who protected Jerry Sandusky.

  4. Steph said

    I think the problem was the “I don’t want to get involved” syndrome. McQueary sent it up the chain of command so it wasn’t his problem anymore. Then, Paterno did the same thing. I think its human nature to not want to get involved. That’s why we pass the homeless on the street pretending they don’t exist. We want it to be someone else’s problem.

    • Charletta Lynn Barton said

      A very good point! “I don’t want to get involved” is often the culprit, but that still isn’t a good excuse as far as I am concerned.

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