On Paterno, Sandusky, and what we may have learned

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.

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11 Responses to On Paterno, Sandusky, and what we may have learned

  1. Terrance H. says:

    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 read and reread that to ensure you weren’t quoting something. To ensure that was actually you, Kendrick, uttering those words. And now being confident that you did, in fact, write them, I just have to say….

    Wow. That was perhaps the most bizarre post I have ever – and I do mean EVER – read. I didn’t know what to expect from you, Kendrick, but it certainly wasn’t that. I don’t know if perhaps you’ve mentioned that bit of information before and I didn’t catch it, or what. But you sorta caught me off guard.

    BIG TIME.

    I would like to say how very sorry I am that you had to go through something so awful, and thank you for deciding to share it with all of us. It takes a lot of courage, I think, to tell that story.

    Our little WordPress click is quite forthcoming, I’ve realized, and that’s a good thing, I think. Because to truly like someone, you have to know them, and I feel like we all know each other pretty well considering the medium.

    Stunning, for sure. And again I’m sorry.

    • Thanks Terrance. Your sincerity and solicitude are deeply appreciated. Know this though: neither I nor anyone else ever needs to hear how sorry other people are. In fact, that can be vaguely embarrassing, especially if we do not consider ourselves permanent (as opposed to momentary) “victims,” don’t even like that word, and do not wish to think of ourselves as injured in any permanent way. Other people didn’t do it. We need to hear “I’m sorry” from the perpetrator. Sometimes that happens, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s more likely to happen when perpetrators are called out and publicly held to account. No more silence!

      And yes, our community is a special one. I do not believe I would have written that post but for the remarkable honesty I have read in our community, including some of your posts. It is a space, despite our various political and religious and background differences, where we can be comfortably real, and know that the exasperation this week will be followed by tingles of admiration the next. It is a tremendously good feeling to have friends like you and our fellow bloggers, even though I’ve never actually met you. Isn’t that strange and exhilarating?

      • Terrance H. says:

        Kendrick,

        I’m sorry for saying sorry.

        I know. I have a serious problem with levity…Ugh.

        I just didn’t know what else to say. It’s not something you hear often. I’ve honestly never spoken with anyone that was, to my knowledge, molested by someone as a child. A profound feeling that what happened to you was wrong and unfair came over me and not knowing what else to say, knowing that nothing I say will ever introduce any healing, I said the simplest, easiest thing imaginable: sorry.

        The way you hold your head up about this is very admirable, though. The statement that you were a momentary victim, not a permanent one, bleeds with strength and courage. It’s uncommon, but wonderful.

        I know that all the people I talk to on here have made an impact. Some more than most, for certain. Nothing would please me more than to one day be able to hug each and every one of you.

        Thanks.

  2. lbwoodgate says:

    An awesome and courageous presentation Kendrick. Thanks for speaking out on this issue.

    The fact that you yourself are a victim of child sexual abuse and have a wonderful gift of the written word compels others who haven’t thought more seriously about allowing such abuses to go unreported is something that no one should ever consider. The perpetrator doesn’t need defending. His or her victim does and by not reporting such vile behavior we allow these sick people to continue down this dark path.

    • Thanks Larry. Yes, silence is a terrible enabler.

  3. Snoring Dog Studio says:

    I can condemn Joe Paterno and everyone else like him who stands by and ignores what needs to be done, what should be done.

    I hold myself in low esteem for putting a pillow over my head the night I overheard my male neighbor having a violent argument with his girlfriend. I hold myself in low esteem for not having recognized that what I saw a stranger do to his infant baby was undeniably child abuse. But then, fortunately, with God’s grace, later on, I gained some maturity and wisdom and I did then intervene when I saw a teacher in a State Institution abuse a disabled and retarded young man. I did intervene when I refused the absolutely crazy request of a psychologist to perform a bizarre form of desensitization on a young man with a mental illness. Of course, I had to deal with the fallout of being the person who stood up to the wrongs. But it felt right and it made me feel more powerful and more able to do it again in the future. Now I know with absolute certainty that I’ll never again stand by and watch and turn away.

    Parents have many, many important lessons to teach their children, but you are correct, Kendrick – the lessons about right and wrong, delivered sincerely and wisely and OFTEN can save lives in the future. It is such a small thing to take the time to teach, but a gigantic thing to send your child out in the world with.

    I grieve for your loss of innocence and that you’ve carried it with you all these years. I wish for a healing that will come to you soon.

    • I am not surprised that you are fearless and brave in this way. Please don’t grieve. I do not feel injured. The experience has not traumatized or “haunted” me. In short, I’m fine — except, of course, for all the minor ways I’m not really fine that have nothing, as far as I know, whatever to do with my teacher’s betrayal so many decades ago. And when I said “I cannot condemn Joe Paterno,” I meant I just didn’t have the stomach for it. An important conversation to be sure, but not one I wish to throw myself into.

  4. Patsy Theriot says:

    HI Ken. I just wanted to say thanks for writing about the subject of child sexual abuse. The statistics are alarming. I think it’s one in four girls and one in eight boys become victims by the time they are 18 years old. I heard that on the radio recently and have not verified it. I appreciate your point about teaching our children the difference between right and wrong. This is obviously beneficial for many reasons. I can’t help but think that it helped you to ‘handle it in your own way’ rather to give into the abuser. I am glad you had the strength to do that. I feel like that, as a youngster you did well to protect yourself and were not in any way responsible for the abuser’s actions. Had you been an adult who knew of or saw such abuse, then your level of responsibility would have been different. Glad you are ok, and able to share so openly. Btw, my old band director from high school was arrested for this very thing. Have a blessed day, Ken.

    • Welcome and thank you most kindly Patsy. Yes, there is a profound difference between the silence of those who are abused and the silence of those who witness or know of abuse. And that is particularly true as to those who are abused before (or just at the onset of) puberty or sexual awareness. The magnitude of confusion, of processing what seems vaguely wrong and invasive, even though it doesn’t hurt (and I’m obviously not talking about the horror of forcible penetrating rape), without having any context for “sex” or any developed consciousness about genitals, can be overwhelming. I remember thinking as a child that I had no story to tell, nothing to say to anyone — even to my teacher, whom I quietly and very mildly punished, without ever once actually confronting him with the deed itself, because (as I came to understand later) I had no narrative context, no understanding of the deed itself, no labels to affix to it, just my own very private sense of violation and betrayal. I honestly had no earthly idea what interested him in my genitals. I thought I was at his house because we both collected stamps, and we put our stamps in albums and displayed them proudly, but covered and kept our genitals to ourselves. That was the extent of my understanding. And so I chose to play out the resulting power relationship very privately.

      And yes, I’m truly okay, and have a blessed day yourself.

  5. michellem says:

    I want to re-iterate how important it is to teach our children not only the difference between right and wrong, but specifically that it’s important to have boundaries, even with adults. My parents’ view of children was that they were to be seen, but not heard. There was no tolerance for questioning an adult and all adults were to be treated with the utmost respect.

    I was sexually abused during childhood. The most harmful effect I suffered was the inability to recognize that I needed boundaries, and that I had the right to set them. This led to numerous relationship problems until I went to counseling as an adult and purposely learned how to set boundaries.

    When nothing was done about the first time I was molested as a six year-old, in spite of at least four adults knowing of the abuse, it sent a message to me. I had no boundaries. That made me easy prey for the next three perpetrators.

    My step-father was one of them. In addition to not knowing that I had a right to tell an adult no, I learned not to listen to my gut feelings. My step-father would talk to me afterwards and convince me that, because it wasn’t incest……..because he wasn’t my real father……he wasn’t really molesting me. My gut feeling told me that he was, but he said he wasn’t…..and adults are always right……right?

    I can look back and see how one episode led to another because no one ever stood up and said, “What was done to you was wrong” the first time. I really didn’t need an apology from any of the perpetrators; I needed someone to affirm my gut feeling – that what was happening was really happening and that it was wrong. Then I would have known I had the right to keep it from happening again. ……..whether the perpetrator admitted wrong doing or not.

    • Thank you deeply for this insightful sharing. Your discussion about boundaries and a child’s larger relationship to adults is profound.

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