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.
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.”
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.