I wasn’t going to write about Penn State. I wasn’t going to write about Jerry Sandusky, Mike McQueary, Tim Curley, Gary Schultz, President Graham Spanier or Joe Paterno. I wasn’t going to write about the purported sexual abuse of (at least) eight children.
But then I saw this Facebook status: “Penn St: terrible decision.”
To my great fortune, I am not a victim of sexual assault. But it’s a subject that I cared a lot about back in high school, when I was a Peer Counselor, and the things I learned in that program are still hanging onto me. I did a lot of work in sexual assault prevention in Peer Counseling: I taught classes, I made educational videos, I went to hundreds of meetings. I was Fort Collins High School’s Sexual Assault Resource Team Student Representative. I could rattle off statistics about how 1 in 4 Colorado women and 1 in 17 Colorado men would be victims of sexual assault in her and his lifetime; about how victims of sexual assault in Larimer County alone ranged in age from six months to 94 years. I learned, and believed in my bones, that sexual assault is an issue of power, not sex.
Given my experience in Peer Counseling there are many things I could say about Sandusky, but I’m not thinking about him.
Joe Paterno is 84 years old. He knew about Sandusky’s abuse. He reported it to Curley, the AD, sure, but he should have done more, and that’s why he lost his job tonight. At Penn State, and around the country for that matter, there are two camps of people watching this play out: those who say Paterno deserved to be fired and those who say he’s innocent, just getting swept up in Sandusky’s scandal. And here’s the disconnect: Paterno is part of a dying generation of men who looked the other way. He did what he was legally obligated to do, and then quickly tried to forget it because it wasn’t his business.
By firing Paterno, the board of trustees at Penn State is declaring that protecting Sandusky’s victims is more important than football, which is a statement that needs to be made. I think if Paterno were just getting his coaching start now, in an era when sexual assault is deemed utterly reprehensible, he would have reported Sandusky to the police and this story would be completely different. But he and the rest of the good ol’ boys let this one slide, and that led to an enormous tragedy that they could have prevented. I think my friend with the Facebook status and the rest of camp Innocent are upset because a) he’s such an old man – sort of like our grandfathers, who we think can do no wrong – and b) he never touched a child himself. But he’s 100% complicit in the crime, because he knew about it and he didn’t take appropriate measures to stop it.
It’s sad, because Paterno probably didn’t think he had to do anything else. But does that mean we should let him off the hook? Because he looked the other way, so many children were hurt. That inaction deserves serious consequences, and if he were a janitor at Penn State, he would have received the same punishment for that failure. He’s not taking the fall because he’s the face of the football program and the scapegoat of a flawed university system. He’s falling because he screwed up. Big time.
I sat on a bench down in the Berkeley Marina for a few hours today, reading more Spirit of Life and thinking about this scandal. Moltmann writes, “There is no liberation from sin without atonement, but the only one who can atone is someone who is not himself a sinner. Atonement is not humanly possible. It is possible only for God.”
This morning Paterno released a statement, part of which read, “This is a tragedy. It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.” I think about Paterno’s words, and Moltmann’s, and reach for peace – for the victims of sexual assault everywhere, for Paterno and the other coaches, for my friend, for the rest of us – from God. Lord, have mercy.