The events at Penn State have properly called for an examination of conscience from the university's Board of Trustees, which, apparently hoping Joe Paterno would resign in light of the revelations emerging in recent days, was forced to fire the college football legend. One can only hope it provokes a similar examination of conscience from Paterno and among his staff for their role in covering up the soul-crushing crimes of Jerry Sandusky--even among the students so blinded by tradition and the institution of Penn State football that they rebelled at this most basic recrimination for the coach’s unforgiveable lack of judgment and sins of omission.
"I am disappointed with the Board of Trustees' decision, but I have to accept it," Paterno said in a statement. I am disappointed that Joe Paterno did not perceive that at the minimum circumstances demanded his resignation. They may in fact require criminal charges.
Of course in the church we are painfully aware of the damage individuals can do when they seek to protect a cherished institution from scandal, sadly from precisely this kind of scandal. Still, I have never ceased to be amazed to hear the stories of people who had their suspicions, if not caught perpetrators outright in the act, and chose to go to superiors instead of to police. This phenomenon is repeated in the Penn State scandal as a young graduate assistant Mike McQueary stumbles upon Jerry Sandusky, a senior staff member, raping a ten-year-old child. Not only does he A.) not intervene in the attack or B.) call the police; he seeks counsel from his father, who apparently failed to provide good counsel, then waits a day before reporting the attack, not to police, but to his superiors.
What exactly is going through the mind of a person under these admittedly unnatural and stressful circumstances? Why have so many failed to do the obvious, right thing on these occasions?
Molesting a child is the kind of offense that envelopes all parties in a cloud of shame; it distorts perspectives, obscures the best path forward. The victim, ashamed to report or describe his victimization; the witnesses, whose experience in life probably have not prepared them to think clearly and act with resolution when confronted by such a despicable act; the perpetrators themselves, whose sickness at least is clear, probably feel a kind of shame themselves when so caught, but it is not a shame that promotes remorse and atonement, but cunning and self-preservation. How many have accepted implausible explanations from child molesters because on some level that was the easiest way out for everyone?
McQueary, the eyewitness in this case, may have been at a complete loss as to how to proceed; he may have been worried about his career at Penn State, probably a little of both. This sorry episode is just another example of why statements of policy and procedure must be established and beaten into the minds of staff at all institutions that touch on the lives of children. That way when someone perceives an act of child molestation—even if they succumb to brain freeze because of what they’ve seen—they can proceed like an automaton through a regimented series of steps that will protect defenseless children from these cruel attacks, as well as the irresolution of others.