Like most of the United States, all of us at Lovefraud were horrified by the sordid story of child sexual abuse that emerged from Penn State University last week. Unlike most of the United States, we probably weren’t surprised.
That’s because all of us at Lovefraud have learned a very difficult lesson that millions of other people have not learned. This is the lesson: Evil exists.
For most of us, however, there was a time before the lesson. At that time we didn’t know evil existed—let alone what it looked like or what to do about it. So at that time, we were vulnerable to the sociopaths.
The sociopaths came into our lives, showering us with affection and maybe gifts, asking about our dreams and promising to make them come true. Kind of like the way Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State assistant football coach, treated some of the young boys from his Second Mile organization for disadvantaged youths.
Then, after a period of time, we glimpsed inappropriate or immoral behavior from the sociopath. Perhaps it was directed towards someone else. Perhaps it was directed toward us. In any event, we were shocked.
Did we really see what we thought we saw? Did that person, who we always thought was so wonderful, who had been treating us like gold, really do that? It’s so out of character. It can’t be true.
Kind of like the reaction many people probably had towards allegedly seeing or hearing about Jerry Sandusky abusing young boys.
Many people at Penn State failed to take appropriate action to stop Sandusky from preying on young boys. All of the following people have been criticized:
- Janitors who knew of an assault
- Mike McQueary, the graduate assistant football coach who witnessed an attack
- The Penn State athletic director and senior vice president, who failed to contact police
- Penn State University President Graham Spanier, himself a family therapist
- The legendary football coach Joe Paterno
But the issue is complicated. I am not making excuses for anyone, but experts say that any decision about what to do in this situation would have been fraught with psychological issues and societal pressures. An excellent article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette raised the following points:
- Did the officials who failed to report feel allegiance to a friend? Did they feel allegiance to Penn State football, or to the university?
- What about the phenomenon of “diffusion of responsibility”? Did everyone think reporting was someone else’s responsibility?
- What about the human brain, which is “remarkably adept at believing what it wants to believe”—and not believing what it doesn’t want to believe?
Read Penn State: Why doing the right thing isn’t as easy as it seems, on Post-Gazette.com.
So how do we correct the problem? How can people be prepared to respond appropriately when they come face to face with evil? We need awareness, education and training:
- Awareness: Evil exists.
- Education: Evil is not always obvious. Sometimes, it masquerades as goodness.
- Training: When we discover evil, what do we do?
Quite frankly, I think many of the people who could have reported the behavior of Jerry Sandusky were shocked into inaction. They saw or learned something unbelievable. They didn’t know what they saw or learned was possible. Then, with no guidance about what to do in such a situation, they decided there was less personal risk in doing nothing, or doing the minimal, or soft peddling what they learned, in case they were wrong.
Make no mistake: Doing the right thing in this situation involved enormous personal risk. It was the individual’s word against that of a scion of Penn State football. It was like going up against the church.
Perhaps, in the end, good will come out of this tragedy. What happened at Penn State has provided a teachable moment on a grand scale.
The child sexual abuse scandal has forever tarnished the legacy of the legendary Joe Paterno and the storied Penn State football team. It is a lesson of what can happen when people fail to do the right thing. The sudden and drastic downfall may be just what is needed to help people faced with similar situations in the future take the personal risk and go to the right authorities.
Doing nothing may be safe in the short term, but perilous in the long term. If Joe Paterno can be ruined by not doing enough, anyone can be ruined.