By now I’m sure most of you are familiar with the recent charges brought against former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, as well as charges of perjury and failure to report against Penn State officials. If you aren’t familiar with the details, you can read them here, although they are quite disturbing.
When I first saw the story, Sunday night, it made me absolutely sick that this person was seen in a shower with a “10 year old boy”, 9 years ago, and was just now being charged with a crime.
After having a couple of days to digest the allegations, and read up on the details, I have to say, that as sick as it makes me, I’m not necessarily surprised. This is the Catholic Church, various boarding schools, junior hockey coaches, etc. all over again. Claims are made against “one of us”, whether it be a priest, a fellow coach, a board member, and we are hesitant to believe them or pursue them. The people in positions of authority don’t want to believe that this sort of thing is happening under their noses, or being done by the same people they live and work with daily, so they do the minimum, if that. After all, Sandusky was one of them, and they wouldn’t do this, so surely there must be some misunderstanding, right? It’s called cognitive dissonance, and it’s actually quite normal, this ability we have to filter information in favor of what we already believe to be true. This is what makes it possible for abuse to go on right in front of us, with all the signals and hints visible, without people really seeing them, because we already believe good things about the people we are close to. Bad things struggle to crack our awareness.
Obviously, in this case, a couple of officials have been charged with not even doing the minimum, legally, but the focus has now switched to head coach Joe Paterno, and the graduate assistant who made the initial claim. They, apparently, met the minimum requirements of reporting it to their superiors, but did they really do the “right” thing? Did Paterno owe it to those kids to see past his dissonance when it came to his long time assistant, and personally get involved in making sure this was investigated? Did the university have an obligation to do more than simply tell Sandusky not to bring children to campus?
Personally, I believe that they did, but I also acknowledge that it’s sometimes easier said than done. I’d like to believe I would take serious any charge of child abuse, even if it was levied against someone I am close to, but when push comes to shove, are any of us willing to believe that our best friend, our spouse, our family members, our friends and neighbors, are capable of such heinous acts? Aren’t we sure they are just like us, and incapable of such things?
If this tragedy teaches us anything, it should teach us that abusers come in all shapes and sizes, ages, male and female, and just because we think we know someone, doesn’t mean they aren’t hiding horrific secrets. We owe it to these children, and the potential future victims to put aside our dissonance and take these kinds of claims seriously.
We should also raise our awareness of who pedophiles are. We like to think of pedophiles as those creepy guys from the TV movies, who we all know to avoid, but the reality is much more complicated than that. Pedophiles can be anywhere, and the best way to protect children is to stay closely involved in their lives, including keeping up with the people they are spending time with. Jerry Sandusky couldn’t have had a cleaner image at Penn State, and it was that image and prominence in the community that he used to cover up what he was doing, allegedly. Abusers don’t announce themselves, assuming kids are safe just because no one “creepy” is around, is a huge mistake.