Commentary Magazine


Penn State’s Shift Toward Evil

During the last half-century, you’d be hard-pressed to find many programs in college football that were more respected than Penn State or a coach who was more revered than Joe Paterno. But all that they had achieved now lies in ashes. To understand why, one need only read the results of this investigation into Penn State’s sexual abuse scandal.

The seven-month investigation,  based on 430 interviews and some 3.5 million documents, excoriates the university’s leadership – including then-Head Coach Joe Paterno, President Graham Spanier, Athletic Director Tim Curley, and Vice President Gary Schultz – for covering up allegations of sexual abuse by Assistant Coach Jerry Sandusky. (Last month Sandusky was found guilty on 45 of 48 sex abuse counts.) This happened in part because they were concerned about negative publicity.

“Our most saddening and sobering finding is the total disregard for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims by the most senior leaders at Penn State,” said former FBI Director Louis Freeh, who led the investigation. “The most powerful men at Penn State failed to take any steps for 14 years to protect the children who Sandusky victimized.” The report highlights a “striking lack of empathy” for the victims. And the investigation shows that Paterno, who died in January, was an integral part of an “active decision to conceal.” It appears as if the former coach of the Nittany Lions not only lied to reporters but to a grand jury as well. (Paterno insisted he had no knowledge of a 1998 police inquiry into child molestation accusations against Sandusky, his assistant coach.)

The report is a horrifying account of individual and institutional failure, based in part on a “culture of reverence for the football program that is ingrained at all levels of the campus.”

Consider just one incident. In 2000, a janitor at the football building saw Sandusky assaulting a boy in the showers. According to Freeh, “The janitor who observed it says it’s the worst thing he ever saw. He’s a Korean War veteran. … He spoke to the other janitors. They were awed and shocked by it. But, what did they do? They said they can’t report this because they’d be fired. They were afraid to take on the football program. They said the university would circle around it. It was like going against the president of the United States. If that’s the culture on the bottom, God help the culture at the top.”

What appears to have happened is that otherwise good men, when confronted with evidence that they had a monster in their midst, decided to cover up the crimes in hopes of protecting their reputations and those of their university. That decision began a chain of events that made them complicit in unspeakable acts.

This is not the first time individuals and institutions have turned a blind eye toward, and then become complicit in, malevolence. It occurred in the Catholic Church as well, as this 2004 report showed. The reasons such things happen are extremely complicated. It starts, I suppose, with — to invoke a word that is increasingly out of fashion these days — sin, which touches all of us to one degree or another. Human beings are a mixture of virtue and vice, of nobility and corruption, of good intentions and depraved motivations. Within every person lies competing and sometimes contradictory moral impulses and currents. It was Solzhenitsyn, in reflecting on his time in the Gulag, who wrote:

Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.

The challenge of civilizations has been to set up institutional arrangements that take into account the human condition and channel it in ways that encourage the good and place a check on evil. What this means is that in our universities, in our churches, and in our political systems – in virtually every human institution – we need checks and balances. We need accountability. And we need transparency. The concentration of power — when combined with pride, arrogance, ambition, and fear — can lead even impressive people to act in unjust and repellant ways.

What happened at Penn State was a massive institutional failure combined with massive personal failures. In the process, crimes were committed. Reputations were destroyed. A university was shamed. And worst of all, children were abused and scarred for life.

This is not a new story, or even the worst story we have seen. But it is sickening enough. At Penn State, the line through the human heart shifted dramatically in the direction of evil.

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