On Paterno, Sandusky, and what we may have learned
November 13, 2011 11 Comments
I didn’t think I’d talk about Joe Paterno or Jerry Sandusky, even though I’ve stumbled into so much coverage of the issue in the news and among my fellow bloggers. I’d take a pass, I thought, rather as I did with the Casey Anthony case, and let others rage about abominations. But then I read Ross Douthat’s column in the New York Times and experienced a cascade of emotions.
Douthat speaks delicately of good people who do bad things and bad people who do bad things — as we all, I instantly associated with his message and recollect from my childhood in church, have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. But Douthat did not intend a cleansing message, a solidarity in sin that suspends judgment.
Quite the contrary. Good people and bad people do bad things for different reasons — and good people too often fall into the trap of imagining they do bad things for “a higher cause.” Douthat’s final riveting paragraphs:
Sins committed in the name of a higher good, [Catholic essayist John] Zmirak wrote, can “smell and look like lilies. But they flank a coffin. Lying dead and stiff inside that box is natural Justice … what each of us owes the other in an unconditional debt.”
No higher cause can trump that obligation — not a church, and certainly not a football program. And not even a lifetime of heroism can make up for leaving a single child alone, abandoned to evil, weeping in the dark.
Reading these lines, I knew I should talk about Joe Paterno and Jerry Sandusky. And I realized that perhaps I initially thought to move on and let Joe and Jerry sink beneath the nano-short American attention span because I was molested as a child by a trusted and beloved teacher — and I didn’t particularly want to think about it, and knew I wouldn’t need to much longer.
I wasn’t hurt. I wasn’t “raped.” I was molested while I slept, and when I awoke and realized what was happening, I gradually, ever so slowly so as not to disturb or alarm my teacher, eased myself out of the bed and slept on the floor for the rest of the night. I didn’t tell anyone for a long time, and always felt I had simply handled it. I never felt injured, just betrayed. The man didn’t love me. He lusted for my little penis. But that was between me and the teacher, and there were ways, in due course, he would know what that betrayal meant. Just him.
When I punished him in tiny ways, there never issued an apology, or even an acknowledgement of what had happened. Just obtuseness. Just a tacit power relationship that had now been flipped. And I had no desire for the power, just the apology. Just the basic recognition that what had happened was wrong. Just the flicker of a moral framework so that we could move on. It never came.
I still like to think I just handled it, and that was it, end of story. But I know I will never know for sure. It’s finally impossible to parse why we are who we are. And therapy, which has never struck me as good value for the money, seems just as likely to take us down rabbit trails, and new exciting reasons to validate ourselves, typically at someone else’s expense, as to yield true self-understanding — which happens, if ever, as a happenstance of cosmic grace. But being the man with two failed marriages makes me wonder, lightly, and makes me wish more earnestly I knew who I am and why with the clarity that seems to me the most obvious gift God could ever give us, if He were truly a God of compassion.
I later learned that my teacher was rumored to be involved with several other instances of molestation. My little brain didn’t know how to process this. The best I could do is tell another boy insistently, don’t ever let him do it.
As far as I know, my teacher never acknowledged that what he did was wrong. He was never held to account.
And I suppose this is the true injury — not to me, but to us, all of us — this tacit permission we grant again and again with our silence to have sex with children, to feel vague horror, turn away, and do nothing.
Sociology team Samuel and Pearl Oliner examined the reasons why some Gentiles helped Jews during the Holocaust. They did hundreds of interviews, all toward divining what mattered, in the moment, when a Jew on the run from the Nazis showed up at your doorstep. Did you slam the door? Did you tell them with a quiver in your voice that you couldn’t afford to help them? Or did you invite them in?
The Oliners ran the variables as to what would make some Gentiles help Jews and others not. As it happens, piety or frequency of church-going (or not) doesn’t predict inclination to help a Jew — and neither did particular religious affiliation, political party or orientation, education level, or socioeconomic status.
The single variable that mattered was having been raised with a clear sense of right and wrong. The Gentiles most likely to help Jews, even at risk to themselves, were Gentiles with a core sense of right and wrong. In that terrible moment, with everything in their life imperiled, they concluded they could not not help this person.
And this is Douthat’s ultimate point. We know in our gut, or we do not, what is right and what is wrong — quite apart from our religion, our politics, or anything else — and when the terrible and unfair moment arrives, as it does to an arbitrary few, as it did to Joe Paterno, do we do what is right at risk to ourselves and higher causes to which we’ve devoted our lives, or not?
I can’t condemn Joe Paterno. But I can say to every parent: teach your children the difference between right and wrong. Instill that simple dichotomy as insistently as you possibly can — because some day, the most profound justice of the moment may turn on your child’s simple appreciation of right and wrong.