The sex scandal at Penn State University has been bugging me for a while. Not so much because it happened, but because so many people covered it up. The late Joe Paterno was a head coach with an outstanding reputation for supporting education well past the point expected of successful football coaches. He consistently graduated his players, and gave millions to build the library at Penn State, one reason his name will remain on it. I have no doubt he abhorred the behavior of his former assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky. Yet he covered it up. Why?

In a way it reminds me of the sex scandals committed by priests in the Roman Catholic Church. In both cases men charged with teaching and guiding others betrayed them for sexual purposes. In both cases men who abhorred such acts covered it up. I do not believe the bishops involved supported sexual abuse. Yet they covered it up.

The fact that two scandals could be so different and yet in many ways so similar makes me wonder what it is about human nature that makes us so willing to cover up things we by all rights should immediately disclose. Those of us who are completely uninvolved automatically assume that had we been there, of course we would have turned in Sandusky and put a stop to this. Yet none of the people who were there did act. This makes it to me, more a characteristic of human beings then individuals. So I'd like to offer some educated guesses as to why.

First of all sexual predators rarely correspond to our expectations. When we see them on television there is invariably some subtle look, some cue which tips the audience off that this person isn't right, they're someone we should distrust. Only in the finest dramas does the villain come in out of the blue. Most of the time, we sort of know early in the show and get some satisfaction when the bad guy gets his comeuppance.

In real life the biggest difference between sexual predators and other people is predators treat children a lot better. They are interested and attentive, everything we would hope a mentor would be right up until the point. Second, in these cases the bad guy was a friend. Sandusky was a coach and mentor who had unquestionably done good works. I'm sure the same could be said of the priests who also abused their charges. They're friends and compatriots whom we know and like. We don't want them to be guilty, we want the oily guy we don't like to be the villain. And so we're more emotionally prepared when they deny anything happened, claim exaggerations and promises to never, ever do it again. We want to believe it's true. And in many cases, the villain lying to us also wants these things to be true.

But most of all I think it comes down to this: Human beings derive a lot of their identity by what they do. It's one of the ways we define who we are. We spend a third of our lives working, more if we're poorer or particularly ambitious. Head football coach at a major university is far more then a job, it is a life, a job that truly never, ever ends. Alabama football coach Paul 'Bear' Bryant died within days of announcing his retirement. As did Paterno. To do that job well requires a consuming passion that absorbs virtually every waking moment. You simply have to love that job to do it well. The same thing is true for a Bishop of the Catholic Church. Think of how much you have to give up just to become a priest. Consider how few rise to rank within the church. Being a priest is a life, a Bishop more so particularly when you have responsibilities to the church as a whole.

So when a guy like Jerry Sandusky is pleading his case in front of you, not only is he a friend, a guy whom you really don't want to believe could possibly have done those vile things, you also know that exposing him threatens the very thing you have devoted your life to building. Exposing him is also to expose yourself.

It is the selfishness and cowardice of better men which allowed men like Jerry Sandusky to go on preying on children long after he was found out. He survived because in order to take people like him down we must also cut into ourselves. It's why we cover things up and hope people will change even though our gut knows better. Because now we have to change too, and that's really hard.

The reason that so many children were allowed to be abused by men who should have acted differently is because they were men. When you want to know why this was allowed to continue look in the mirror, your answer lies there.

I failed as a parent yesterday.

My wife had reheated some leftovers from our Sunday dinner, green beans, roast and carrots, homemade rolls, with some fresh corn on the cob and mashed potatoes. We drank water and and we gave my daughter milk. My wife can cook like grandmothers from the past, and for the second day in a row I stuffed myself. But all through dinner she was quiet and withdrawn. This summer she has interviewed for several jobs in a different area and always made the final list, on more than one occasion having been called back for a follow-up interview with one other candidate. But ultimately, each time she placed second. Until yesterday anyway, when she traveled to another interview only to find out the position being hired was for a completely different location. She decided to go ahead and do the interview but was not really interested in the new location. And, as these things go, she was actually offered the position. If she had known the location before driving the 45 minutes to the interview, she would have declined in the first place, but now declined over the phone.

I asked her after dinner why she was upset. She said she wasn't sure if that had been the right decision, to decline the job, but I pointed out that it was in a bad location and she had always expressed an aversion to working there. I tried to cheer her up, though not very successfully.

And this is where my parenting took a nosedive.

With our daughter playing in the room with us, I offered to take my wife to get ice cream to cheer her up. Of course, my daughter was immediately interested in this idea. We ended up just driving to a local gas station (the nearest ice cream place is about 30 minutes away). I bought my daughter a push-pop, and purchased some Rolo's for my wife and a Mountain Dew for myself.

So, dear reader, let's play a game. See how many things you can list that I have done wrong at this point.


Depending on your views of parenting, maybe you haven't noticed anything bad yet. And everyone has their style, so that is fine if that works for you and your family. But I count five things immediately wrong here, based on my limited experience raising my daughter:

    I taught my daughter that problems can be solved with food.

    I taught my daughter that problems can be solved by buying something.

    I modeled terrible eating habits.

    I modeled casualization of driving to the store unnecessarily.

    I had the conversation in the first place with my wife in front of my daughter.

Now maybe you have looked over the list and don't agree with some or all of them. Like I said earlier, everyone has their own style. But for me, the first and second one are cardinal sins because they represent what I believe is a fundamental flaw in our society right now. The third and fourth one are almost as serious, especially the third one, and frankly, this is something I fail at on a regular basis. The fifth one is less obvious, but something to keep in mind as children grow up underfoot.

Now, is this one incident going to truly imprint these things on my daughter's consciousness? Maybe, actually. Hopefully not, but at her age she is an unbelievable sponge, and every day she soaks up the most minor details and then shares them with us weeks later, usually much to our surprise. Unfortunately, for most of these, this is not an isolated incident.

If there's one thing I have learned (and one thing that makes me more uncomfortable than anything else) about parenting, it is that we absolutely represent everything our kids are becoming. She watches my every move, notes my every expression, and hangs on my every word. If I'm doing it, she wants to do it. I am her hero, and because of that, everything she sees me do she believes to be the right thing to do. And that is a huge amount of responsibility.

So the next time you're around kids, even if they are not your own, hopefully you will remember this and think, "What is this kid going to learn about the world from what I'm about to do or say?"

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