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.