We know how to feel about serial child rapist Gerry Sandusky. Horror at his crimes. Heartbreak for the victims. Relief that he was convicted at trial and is finally behind bars.
A bit more difficult is what to make of Joe Paterno and the rest of the senior university officials, who enabled Sandusky to prey on so many children for so long. Then came the comprehensive report of former FBI Director/Federal Judge Louis Freeh, issued late last week. Now there can be no doubt that Paterno and the others knew about Sandusky going back many years. The Freeh report also makes clear that Paterno and the others cared far more about protecting their beloved (and lucrative) football program than about the welfare of innocent children inexcusably violated by one of their own.
As Judge Freeh noted in his report: “The most saddening finding by the Special Investigative Counsel is the total and consistent disregard by the most senior leaders at Penn State for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims. . . . [Paterno and others] failed to protect against a child sexual predator harming children for over a decade.”
Penn State revered its football program and its longtime father-figure, too. (“Pater” is Latin for father.) With this report, he now faces the opprobrium he well deserves. With all that we now know, it is easy and justified to loathe Paterno for his reckless failure to intervene and prevent countless assaults. It just seems shallow and callous anymore to fret over Paterno’s legacy as a football figure. He was a knowing co-conspirator in perhaps the worst serial pedophile scandal ever.
Most perplexing is what to make of everyone else who surely must have known, must have had some idea of what Sandusky was doing? What about the janitors who witnessed what they saw going on in the athletic center’s showers? What about the assistant coaches? The players? What about Mike McCreary, who was apparently an eyewitness to child rape, or McCreary’s father who learned what his son had seen and heard? There had to have been many, many individuals who knew something, even if not the entire story.
How could all those people remain silent? Why didn’t they do something? Why didn’t they say something? Hannah Arendt called this the “banality of evil” when trying to make sense of how millions of Germans could allow Eichmann and the Final Solution to take place right in front of their faces. Is that what was going on at Penn State?
When the Freeh report came out last week, I just happened to be in the middle of reading a fascinating, updated take on the “banality” thesis, the just published work, Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times by New York-based writer and journalist Eyal Press.
Mr. Press explores the lives of several individuals who, in morally challenging times and in moments of great personal conflict, acted in a way that went against the popular tide and, importantly, against their own self interest for a greater purpose. “This book is about such noncomformists, about the mystery of what impels people to do something risky and transgressive when thrust into a morally compromising situation: stop, say no, resist.”
Press opens with the story of the Nazi soldiers who occupied Jozefow, a small village in Poland. These German soldiers were ordered to march hundreds of Jewish men, women and children into a forest on the outskirts of the village, line them up on the ground in groups, and shoot them in the head. The shooting went on for hours. The soldiers emerged from the forest splattered in blood.
The part of this story – told before by other historians – that most interested Press was the part when, before the slaughter had begun, the soldiers were invited by their unit commander to withdraw from the assignment if any of them felt they were not up to the task. Several soldiers had handed over their rifles.
“Legally and morally, we may all agree that foremost responsibility for blatantly unethical policies should fall on high-ranking officials rather than on their subordinates,” Press writes. “There surely are situations where exercising moral responsibility is so risky that expecting many people to do so is naïve. But if no one resists, how can those who passively submit or even actively comply be judged, much less be held accountable.”
This is the question that haunts me about the Penn State situation. Sandusky could not have committed his crimes without assistance from many people around him, and not only Joe Paterno and the other university officials who closed their eyes to what he was doing even when they knew damn well. There were others. It is painful to imagine but it must be true.
In one of his profiles, Author Press tells the story of what happened in Vukovar, an ethnically mixed town in Croatia, as ethnic fighting among the former Yugoslav peoples intensified in 1991. A Serbian unit entered the town, rounded up the men and took them across the border into Serbia and to a group of detention facilities. The Serbian commander recognized a fellow Serb among the detainees, Aleksander Jevtic, and asked him to pick out the Serbs from among the prisoners and take them to a separate area.
The Serbs and Croats from Vukovar had similar appearances. It was hard to tell ethnic identity based on looks alone. But, the Serbian commander figured, Jevtic would know who was who, would know who was Serb and who was Croat.
The implication was clear: Jevtic was to move his fellow Serbs to a safe area. Something very bad was going to happen to the Croats left behind. Disregarding his orders, Jevtic went around to one after another, pretending to round up only his fellow Serbs, and took as many men as he could, without regard to whether they were Serb or Croat. Defiantly risking his own life, Jevtic saved many lives that day and he made a profound statement of protest against ethnic hatred and violence.
After the war, Press interviewed Jevtic several times. His life had not been easy since the war. He was not honored for his bravery. He was a happy enough fellow, with a wife (who happened to be Croatian) and a son. But because of what he had done, despite his heroic and courageous actions, he lived socially apart from both his own Serbian community as well as the Croatian community, whose husbands and fathers he had saved.
Delving into Jevtic’s life to try to understand what motivated this person, Press discovered a defining experience in his subject’s background. Jevtic’s mother had been held in a concentration camp during World War II, a camp run by Croatian fascists. Jevtic’s mother, of course, had survived, but her parents had died in the camp. That experience might have been good reason for many people to breed hatred, the kind of ill-will a parent can hand down to a child. But Jevtic’s mother did not blame all Croats for the death of her own parents and she and Jevtic’s father did not pass on ethnic hatred to their son.
Jevtic told author Press, “My behavior has to do with the way I was raised. [My parents] taught me to love people. They taught me to respect others and myself. My father used to tell me every day that others would respect me only if I respected myself. That was his maxim.”
There is more to the Jevtic’s story and Press explores the complex make up of this fascinating man and the others who, in their own ways and in their own times, said no. (You can find more information about Press and his book at www.eyalpress.com.)
The day before the Freeh report was released, the Paterno family issued a curious statement, obviously anticipating that Pater Paterno was not going to come off well:
“To this point, Joe Paterno is the only person who publicly acknowledged that, with the benefit of hindsight, he wished he had done more. This was an honest and courageous admission that a true leader must assume a measure of responsibility when something goes wrong on his watch.”
This statement could not be more wrong. Paterno was not courageous for wishing he had done more, after it had already been disclosed that Sandusky was going to be tried for crimes against these children, after he himself was already facing tough questions about whether he could have and should have blown the whistle on his assistant coach and saved the lives of many young men. Paterno’s years of inaction made him a coward. His post-hoc regret was self-serving, not honorable.
And why? For what? Did so many fail to act for fear of saying no to a football coach? For fear of being seen as a traitor to Penn State or its football program?
In his report detailing the findings of his investigation, Judge Freeh described “a culture of reverence for the football program that is ingrained at all levels of the campus community.” I admit that this is very hard for me to imagine. I went to Columbia College in New York City at a time when the Columbia football team was entering the record books for having the longest losing streak in college football history. I remember walking through the Dallas airport on a Saturday afternoon several years after graduating, still wearing a Columbia sweatshirt, and someone called out to me from across the gate area, “You won!!” The losing streak was over.
Revering a football coach seems completely alien to me. Using the word “reverence” – a word usually associated with deep spiritual or religious feeling – in the same sentence as football just doesn’t make sense to me.
If that indeed is what was the culture at Penn State, then something profound really does need to change there and, I would imagine, at many college campuses. Judge Freeh acknowledged this in his report:
“One of the most challenging of the tasks confronting the Penn State community is transforming the culture that permitted Sandusky’s behavior, as illustrated throughout this report, and which directly contribute to the failure of Penn State’s most powerful leaders to adequately report and respond to the actions of a serial sexual predator. It is up to the entire University community – students, faculty, staff, alumni, the Board, and the administration – to undertake a thorough and honest review of its culture.”
Changing the culture in a college community and in our broader community is not enough. One courageous individual, one beautiful soul, would have made such a difference at Penn State, would have saved many lives, the way Aleksander Jevtic saved so many lives under far more dangerous circumstances.
The lesson of the Penn State tragedy, it seems to me, is that we need to find ways to raise children and to teach students and to encourage citizens to be less afraid to speak up when they see something wrong happening, when they see someone being hurt, when they see the opportunity to help someone.
No doubt Paterno gave many speeches to his players about the grit and fight and the courage he expected them to bring to the gridiron. Those lessons obviously did not translate to life off the field. That is the shame of what happened.