OT: Child Abuse, Evil, Jerry Sandusky, and Why the Response to the PSU Emails is (kinda) Wrong.

Submitted by stephenrjking on June 30th, 2012 at 2:15 AM


This is a risky topic to address, and it's probably easier to just say nothing. I might even change my mind and delete this halfway through. Before flaming, I encourage readers to read the entire argument. Wordy, but important.

Emails have been released by CNN (see relevant thread) regarding the failure of PSU administrators to intervene in the Jerry Sandusky case. There could be and likely will be new information that will increase our understanding of the terrible choices they made. It is clear that they had information to act upon and chose not to act on it. 

The reaction on this board and in other venues has been understandably strong. The choices made by the involved administrators, up to and including the president of the University, resulted in a predator being allowed to continue preying upon vulnerable children. They may be and, facts permitting, should be held legally responsible for this. 

But I have a question for the people doubling down on character assasination of them and the labelling of them as "conspirators" or people who deliberately helped a man rape children. Do you want to prevent these sorts of things from happening in the future?

Because if one actually wants to protect themselves and others from such terrible behavior, demonizing those who failed to stop the activity is extremely counter-productive. Here's why:

By painting them as genuinely evil people who deliberately consented to and abetted the rape of children to protect their interests, we create a comfortable picture of evil that is, conveniently, impossible for us as "good" people to ever approach. This fits with our common cultural narratives that most people are good but that there are a few villainous, evil people who perpetrate most of the bad things that happen in society. Darth Spanier and Brotherhood of Evil Administrators become classic movie villains, diabolically plotting how best to hurt others and help their own interests. We lump them in with Lex Luthor, Osama Bin Laden, and Adolf Hitler. And we comfort ourselves knowing that we will never be that bad.

But in many of these cases, and quite possibly this one, the events are much more complex; in truth, virtually everybody believes they are good people who generally try to do the right thing. This appears to be true for the Brotherhood of Evil Administrators: the emails that I've seen use words like "Humane" and "Right thing to do." 

My recollection is that evidence from the trial suggests that Mike McQueary's report of what he saw in the shower got softened with each retelling up the chain. What was rape became "horseplay" and "inappropriate touching." Now, they should have known that there was something afoot (especially with previous allegations regarding Sandusky). However, as they thought about it--someone they knew and (wrongly) respected, allegations that weren't proof, and the danger of forever ruining the reputation of a man they believed could still be innocent--they talked themselves out of aggressive steps for what they thought were good, humane reasons. And, frankly, they must have had a hard time comprehending that something so evil could be occurring. 

And as a result they did nothing.

Here's the problem: men with information about criminal activity took "steps" that they believed were good, smart, and even right steps. It took some mental gymnastics, but those were easier than assuming the alternative. In their realm of experience they could not comprehend what they were dealing with, and defaulted to a rose-colored view of the situation. It is unlikely that they made a conscious choice to allow such behavior to remain un-addressed for their own personal ends; it is far more likely that in their own minds they talked themselves into believing that they were doing something "right."

And that's what is dangerous about this: If one believes that only truly evil people could allow such things to happen, then one becomes vulnerable to allowing it him or herself. Because we can tell ourselves, "I'm not an enabler or a conspirator like those terrible PSU administrators." We don't believe we know anyone as awful as Sandusky, because everyone we know is a pretty decent person. 

This is an important matter to me because, as a person in the ministry, I am a mandatory reporter and I have a responsibility to be vigilant about this sort of thing. We have a number of strong safeguards in our church to protect ourselves and the children involved in our ministry from harm or even the appearance of harm. And I can never afford to believe that because so-and-so is a nice guy that nothing could ever happen, nor that since I am well-meaning and "dealing with the issue" that it must be okay and can't possibly be as bad as the Sandusky situation.

And neither can you. The situation could be marginal; it could involve a good person. It might "probably be okay." And we tell ourselves that we're good people so we can't possibly be getting it that wrong. 

Maybe it's not child molestation. Maybe it's a friend who drives home a bit loaded but you think he'll be okay. Maybe it's a guy who you think probably roughs up his girlfriend when he's angry. Or any number of other things. The consequences of intervention are so incomprehensible (lost friendship, court, prison) that we find excuses not to do it, and since we're not wearing Joker make-up we figure we're not doing badly.

And evil people continue to do evil.

When evil people are abetted it is usually not by third parties who want them to continue; it is usually by good people who never make a conscious choice to do wrong.

What the PSU administrators did was reprehensible; and it is quite possible that it was reprehensible despite them never endorsing Sandusky's behavior. 

As you consider your thoughts regarding the Penn State administration (and let me again be clear, they are not the perpetrators, but they had a responsibility to address what they knew and failed to do so. I am not and will not defend them) remember that if you were ever to be in that situation, and you might, the choices you have to make will not be clear-cut. They will be hard. The right choice may actually be the harder one, and you may have good reasons not to make it; make it anyway. 

Do Right. 



June 30th, 2012 at 10:27 AM ^

I agree that it's important to learn lessons from stuff like this, even if we don't like what it says about ourselves. But at the same time, there are huge lessons here to be learned based on the facts of what happened, and who did what. Pointing out the failings of others doesn't presuppose a moral judgment of ourselves, nor does it preclude one.

It does, however, allow us as a society to look upon morally ambiguous activities, and declare as a group that regardless of how real and valid the excuse, or how understandable in the abstract, those actions do not reflect our values. It isn't just to condemn the actors, but also to pass judgment on the acts that some deem defensible.

coastal blue

June 30th, 2012 at 3:00 PM ^

Having just watched the CNN segment I will say this:

I would find the idea that Schultz, Curley and Spanier believed they were handling the situation in a more "humane" manner by not going to the police if they had at least banned Sandusky from using certain facilities or only allowed him around the children with a chaperone. They knew SOMETHING was up and took no steps to stop it. 

This was all about money and reputation and when you place the importance of those things over the innocence 10 year old kids, then I'm sorry, you aren't a good person and you deserved the world of shit coming your way. 


June 30th, 2012 at 8:48 AM ^

There are degrees of doing things that are against the accepted norm.

Did JoePa and the 3 admins commit acts as bad as Sandusky? IMO - no.

Did JoePa and the 3 admins commit acts that are against the accepted norm and should be punished? IMO - yes



June 30th, 2012 at 9:57 AM ^

Some good discussion here.  I think a good lesson is if you are in a position of leadership, pay attention to how you react to difficult information you receive.  If you find yourself justifying what happened instead of dealing with it, then take a step back and re-examine your actions.

It is hard to do and the continuum of difficult issues that come to you as a leader are vast but the habit of taking action instead of taking the easy route is a good one for a person in leadership.

Part of my job is dealing with complaints about inappropriate behavior in the workplace.  I investigate every single one even if my brain is telling me there is nothing there or that the alleged perp is a great employee and good person.  It was part of the PSU leaders jobs to investigate further or get the right people involved to investigate and address it.  They didn't do their job and now they and their employer should pay a very steep price.  Maybe it will lead to people in similar positions doing their job if they see extremely severe consequences.

I will never believe Joe Pa did enough.  He had the power to deal with it and follow-up on it further.


June 30th, 2012 at 10:22 AM ^

A few thoughts:

I don't know that I agree with the OP in his basic assertion related to his concept that the "choices were not clear cut".

Rational humans are capable of measuring the implications of  how a coach potentially sexually assaulting individuals will impact (or have consequences upon) the victims. They can also see how reporting would cause harm to the university. Human harm v. Institutional harm. They had an obvious choice and within an academic culture that has very clear rules about reporting of this type of concern.

At Penn State I don't see the "mental gynastics" you speak about administrators and staff using as anything more than pure rationalization. They didn't want to cross JoePa (perhaps), they didn't want to have a man they respected (Sandusky) jailed, but mostly they wanted to protect the reputation of the school, their football program, the whiteout/black shoes and their own positions and status.

That they did this with some (any) knowledge that Sandusky might be abusing children is reprehensible. To posit that the choices were not clear cut assumes that the administrators can't rationalize right and wrong, can't think rationally and cannot act in the same manner.

Penn State's administrators could have made the clear cut choice to suspend Sandusky (with pay) at the moment these allegations came to light almost a decade ago. They could have launched an investigation then involving the police and these victims. They could have potentially protected other victimes in the interim. 

They did not and, accordingly, share a responsibility equal to that of Sandusky...and for what...protecting "the program" and the institution? 

They could have acted differently. As they did not they must now face the legal consequences and responsiblitites associated with such malfeasance on their parts.



June 30th, 2012 at 12:44 PM ^

Like water flowing downhill, like electricity seeking the shortest path to ground, people will (almost) always do what is easiest, what is good for them. It is far harder to stand up for someone else, to take actions that while good, are much harder. This is the fate of all humanity throughout all time. We fail ourselves always.


A weak race of men

No heroes, no villians

Thus we fall always


Sextus Empiricus

June 30th, 2012 at 12:30 PM ^

This is not OT and that is the point.

The group think that allowed this to happen needs to be addressed and vilified just as much as the individuals need to face the consequences of their action.

This sort of abuse runs deep in our culture and in many others.  We need to face up to it and not separate ourselves from it.

That said we should sow salt in the earth of Beaver Stadium and in a torts sense all of Happy Valley.   If this had been Michigan I would not argue otherwise.  If PSU stays in the B1G - let's take 5 years of no football on that campus.  It's just too disturbing to carry on like nothing happened. 

Villains or not, PSU hasn't begun to heal here.  It's just the beginning.  I don't think it would be preemptive to cancel football there (I don't get the reluctance to do this.)

snarling wolverine

June 30th, 2012 at 9:16 PM ^

I agree with the death penalty (for one year, at least) for PSU.  I just can't really imagine them playing games next year like nothing's happened.  Actually, it'd probably be worse - ESPN et al. would go out of their way to act like every PSU person not in jail is a "victim" and actually try to make us feel sorry for them.  

It's not just one guy who is guilty, it's the program as a whole.  The whole program enabled this.  And all the enabling was done for the "good of the program."  The NCAA needs to send a powerful message here.  This is an unprecedented abuse of power by a collegiate program.    


June 30th, 2012 at 12:44 PM ^

As one with some experience taking difficult positions only to be castigated for trying to "defend" the heinous actions of others, I commend this post.

I think the reason why these posts are so rarely understood correctly is because we like to paint a "tidy" picture of those who do wrong. Did you know that Osama Bin Laden preferred his tea with lemon? Whether that little factoid is true or not, most people reading it will feel a twinge of indignation to learn something innocuous about him, because it humanizes him. We don't want him to feel human, because it makes him harder to hate. Therefore, anyone exploring the context of his actions will be perceived to be defending him even if they explicitly do nothing of the sort. It only "feels" like he's being defended because context is being provided.

For example, the attitudes leading up to the holocaust were pervasive. Millions of Germans participated in it, millions more Poles denied it was happening or tacitly (or explicitly) endorsed it, even the Americans did nothing for a long time, preferring to assume that the scattered reports must be wrong. Of course it's easy to think none of us would have done with those millions of people did, but that thinking is wrong. If we all lived at that time in those places, we wouldn't have the enlightened attitudes we do, and we would have fallen the same as they did.

So, thanks for trying to argue the more difficult side of this.


June 30th, 2012 at 1:10 PM ^

In my mind, the whole reaction of the PSU administration boils down to one thing, and one thing only: their reaction to fear of potential consequences. I don't care if the subject is Watergate, Fast and Furious, Tat-gate, extramarital affairs, or a parent demanding to know "WHO SPILLED THIS ALL OVER THE FLOOR?!"

We are taught, from a very early age, that misbehavior will usually beget consequences that will not be to our liking. That's the case here. All of the b.s. around doing the "humane" thing, when these people's actions speak at much higher volumes, clearly illustrates that they were hoping this whole thing would just go away, and no one would ever find out.

Knowing you've made a mistake and owning up to it, or blowing the whistle on those who have, requires a level of moral character most find they don't have when the shit hits the fan. It's not the same kind of courage that's required to jump on a live grenade to save your buddies at the expense of your own life. Dying a hero means being held up as a hero. F-cking up royally and admitting it means risking your personal reputation, embarrassment and possible humiliation. In other words, reaping what you've sown.


June 30th, 2012 at 1:43 PM ^

Thanks for this post. I think it sums up how I have felt about the situation. Obviously, what Sandusky did was completely awful. The cover up that we are finding more and more about was completely awful as well.

I applaud everyone for not letting this discussion get out of hand. And I also feel that agreement won't be reached among us. I, like the OP, am a believer and believe in the total depravity of man (not sure if this is your theology as well OP). I think we are all looking at the situation from our own worldview perspective (like duh) and coming to conclusions based off of that and obviously, those are different conclusions. I don't think either one is wrong or right but  this discussion is much more productive than the countless "Rot in hell" and "Just shoot him" posts I have seen from many on every board I've frequented.

To repeat the OP, we must all be constantly aware of our thoughts, actions and surroundings as everything has a consequence, whether little or gargantuan.


June 30th, 2012 at 2:32 PM ^

I want to commend StephenRJKing for this post. Several comments.

  • You begin the post with saying "This is a risky topic to address, and it's probably easier to just say nothing." This is a great observation. I agree, and rarely raise these kinds of topics at mgoblog anymore. But I think it is a worthwhile topic to discuss here, even if it brings you grief. More than that, this statement is, in a way, a microcosm of what the administrators at PSU faced. The allegations were a difficult topic to address, and so they ducked, and failed PSU and themselves and most importantly, the children.
  • I want to go on record to say that the administrators were flat out wrong, I have no problem with them doing significant time in jail, and acknowledging that most significantly, they failed the children. It won't bother me if this destroys PSU and their football program. If this helps embolden others in other situations to speak up, it will be worth it. But, without justifying their actions, I think there is at least some difference between deliberate evil actions, deliberate conspiracy of coverup, and choosing to remain ignorant when you suspect something may be no quite right. All are wrong, but to different degrees and in different ways. While the administrators were wrong and failed in their inaction, I'm not sure that they conspired in silence and coverup. I don't think they said, in essence, "even though we know that Sandusky is raping boys, we need to work together to cover this up to protect PSU football."
  • I want to make one observation from the other side. I also am a mandated reporter. Within the last two years, we had three incidents where suspected abuse was reported. In all three cases, the charges were investigated, found unsubstantiated and dismissed. But here's the thing. Out of this, the reputation of two employees was destroyed. Merely because they were under investigation, they ended up quitting. We did the right thing (by reporting, and having investigations opened.) But all it takes is for someone to raise an allegation of abuse, and the CYA train leaves the station. You can't undo these kinds of allegations. How is this relevant? I can understand someone not wanting to ruin someone's reputation. As it turns out, they were protecting the wrong person (Sandusky.)
  • If you haven't read Ramzy's column over at Eleven Warriors, it is worthwhile the read.



June 30th, 2012 at 3:20 PM ^

Their emphasis on doing the "humane" thing was, rather than truly human, just classic rationalization. By purportedly looking out for Sandusky, they could avoid getting their program in hot water. Ergo, they had a gross conflict of interest here. They weren't endeavoring to be humane. They were endeavoring to justify not reporting a child molester.

Picktown GoBlue

June 30th, 2012 at 4:54 PM ^

This leads me to wonder if the admins were current on their Youth Protection or equivalent type of training. Getting this type of training periodically tends to help a person not shrug off "inappropriate touching." But one still worries about the mind trying to see the better story or the one that avoids confrontation.


June 30th, 2012 at 8:52 PM ^

Even if there ends up being some lawyered justification for what appears to be Paterno's steps to prevent Sandusky from being brought down, his claim to greatness is gone.  

I don't even think that it's arguable any more. That email put in writing what we already knew by common sense. This was an individual with ultimate power and far more say in this situation then he told the grand jury. With that power, he protected Joe Paterno, Joe Paterno's job status (remember this was in the midst of those really lousy teams he had for a couple years), and Joe Paterno's apochryphal Penn State of Happy Valley, over kids having their lives destroyed. He did this mostly because they were just strangers who were considered collateral damage to what he held most dear.

That's not the choice of anyone who can rightfully claim greatness.

Waters Demos

June 30th, 2012 at 11:39 PM ^

Have you been reading/read Hanna Arendt's report on the Banality of Evil?  This reads in pertinent part like the work of an Arendt disciple, and in this respect, I emphatically agree with you and her.

Regardless, well done. 


July 1st, 2012 at 3:24 AM ^

It's a thoughtful post, but you're too generous. Did the administrators act with the purpose of doing something wrong? No. But did they act recklessly, or put another way, would a reasonable person have had the foresight that their actions would likely lead to more children being abused? Absolutely.

Accepting the implications of the evidence would have been hard, but coming to the conclusion that Sandusky was probably a child molester was not. Do you think the administrators let their kids or grandkids hang out with Sandusky after this? Or that this would have been handled similarly if one of their kids had been making the accusations?

As leaders they, and Paterno, had the greatest responsiblity in this situation and they willfully gambled with the well being of children.

Your heart is clearly in the right place, and your point can be applied well to other situations, but any sympathy for these people is misplaced.


July 1st, 2012 at 6:54 AM ^

Perhaps I did not read this carefully enough, but my issue with your diary is that you never actually explain why painting the men who did not act as culpable is counter-productive. Counter-productive to what? Sure, lumping them in with Hitler and Bin Laden is hyperbole, but other than that, why is that harmful? If anything, publicizing the fact that actions count, intentions do not, may convince the next person in their position that they need to act.


July 1st, 2012 at 7:52 PM ^

The point I was attempting to make is that such demonization can be harmful because it puts us in the false position of believing that we would never do such a thing, since we're not bad guys like the people who did this. Consequently, it is counter-productive to actually preventing these events if we ever have the misfortune to encounter them because we don't see that we are in the same position. 


July 1st, 2012 at 2:11 PM ^

Thanks, StephenJRKing, for taking a tragedy and using it to challenge us. It's easy to be outraged; it's harder to take a time out from that outrage to work on personal growth.

If I could make a humble suggestion, it would be to edit your title to say "why the response... is incomplete" rather than "kind of wrong." Your post doesn't argue that our outrage is wrong, but I think it's easy for people reading the title to be predisposed to believe that you're telling them they're wrong about this issue before they read your argument. And on a topic this volatile to begin with, it may be hard for readers to consider your nuanced position when they're already on the defensive.

Again, great read, and thanks for starting this challenging discussion. I'd actually been hoping you'd weigh in on this, and I was not disappointed.


July 3rd, 2012 at 7:29 AM ^

"The only downside for us is if the message isn't heard and acted upon, and we then become vulnerable for not having reported it."

Let me disambiguate that a bit: The only downside for us is if Jerry keeps raping boys and someone finds out, we're going to look like we did exactly what we're doing.

This could not happen to anyone.