I first came upon Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as a preteen, far too young to fully appreciate the portrait Conrad painted with that novel. However, it wasn’t the first time I experienced the darkness of the human heart. As a young child I read Animal Farm, A Modest Proposal, and Lord of the Flies to name only a handful of literary classics–all of which include unspeakable horrors that humanity is capable of forcing upon its members. Yes, I was young and so we might argue that I had neither any business reading these books nor was capable of fully understanding them. However, I did understand the capability for people to create horror. After all, my earliest memories of television are Walter Cronkite listing the body counts on the nightly news. Perhaps more important to recognize is that the nightly news during my entire childhood was peppered with stories of Ted Bundy, the Green River Killer, Charles Manson and the like. War, murder, mayhem, they were the stuff of my childhood.
The fact is, my childhood was like all other children’s. Yes, I am saying that every generation of every culture experiences horror just as horrific as I did as a kid growing up in the 70s and 80s in the United States. The difference is that my parents allowed me to see it, read it, know it. Perhaps they didn’t really notice what I was reading and watching. Or perhaps they thought I would tell them if I was scared or confused or worried. Or perhaps they simply didn’t question the existence of scary, confusing, worrisome badness in the world by that time. Because let us be honest in this, there is a darkness in all of our hearts that the good and just battle against every day. And in the weak and evil and unjust, that darkness is allowed to grow and fester and pollute everything.
And this week we certainly have been reminded of that, haven’t we?
As horrifying as it is to hear that a football coach sexually abused boys for a significant period of time, it is more horrifying to hear that people knew about it and did little to keep it from happening again. And as horrifying as it is to hear that an adult was witnessed raping a boy and the witness did nothing to stop the rape from continuing, it is even more horrifying to hear the every single adult who learned of the situation did nothing to ensure it wouldn’t happen again.
The net result is so many absolutely wrecked lives, a scandal that will continue to rock a university, and a legacy that once was golden but will now be forever be tarnished. Joe Paterno will forever be known as the winningest football coach who allowed a sexual predator continued access to boys.
Because whether or not you think Joe Paterno did enough to protect boys, the fact is he allowed Sandusky continued access to boys by not barring him from Penn State facilities and that access allowed Sandusky to escalate from touching to raping. I can’t help but think that he chose to focus on the “bigger picture” of a long-standing record, a program, and what was surely deemed for the betterment of the many over the cost for a few. I can’t help but think Paterno’s honor was tested and he failed to recognize what really mattered. (Which reminds me so much of the Pope and the Catholic Church’s response to the wide-spread violence against boys by priests, but that is the subject for another day.)
The collective human history is filled from day one with places and peoples systematically assaulted and abused, attacked and murdered, enslaved and prevented economic stability. It occurs at the individual level all the way to the top of organizations and systems. And it occurs because it is easy to be a coward.
It takes immense bravery to stand up for what is right. If in the moment you are tested, you pause long enough to ask if someone or something else will be lose honor or prosperity or status, you failed the test. If you can justify someone else’s poverty with the color of their skin or their parentage or their passport, you failed the test. If you worry more about what will happen to you for having come forward than for what happened to the victim, you fail.
And the truth is, most of us fail at these types of tests all the time. We turn the other way, we rationalize, we get busy with the bits and pieces of our lives. Whether you see an atrocity committed and keep going or choose to ignore warning signs, it is ultimately the same thing: human nature appears to dictate that most people do not do the honorable and just thing unless they are personally involved.
I wonder what Joe Paterno would have done if that had been his grandson held against the shower stall wall. I wonder what McQueary would have wanted an adult to do if it had been him being raped by Sandusky.
Those 8 boys? There are millions of children just like them. Millions and millions of them in fact. They are in every nation of the world, in every shape and size, every racial profile, gender, religion, and category. They may be the class president or a child living in Calcutta. They are everywhere and who is helping them?
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.
***Please talk to your children about the realities of child abuse and the prevalence of sexual predators in this world. There are lots of resources out there on the subject. Here is at least a starting spot if you need one: Five things all parents should know about sex offenders .