[I wanted to write about some very dark things, responding to recent stories in the press about rape and child abuse. Joe Paterno’s story provides context, but a dilemma. Piling on an 85 year old man is unseemly, so is glossing over the damage he did by allowing a coverup and abandoning the children he should have protected. Readers, I do not intend to excuse anything that was done at Penn State or in other institutions that value their reputation more than their integrity.]

Coach Joe Paterno has passed. This should have been a semi-private bereavement for sports lovers and the community of Penn State, but this revered elderly man was undone in his last days by unspoken pacts not honored and a foundation of lies that crumbled under his feet. He made headlines, not for praise but for notoriety.

Nothing makes sense out of context. In the context of the old school that formed him, Joe Paterno could have calculated the cost of taking his assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky, to the law, and found it better to write off the injured boys and their families as a loss. Too bad. He could not predict that the bill would come due with interest.

This awful case gives support to the convention of keeping sexual assault accusers anonymous– after Paterno stepped down violence broke out at Penn State

Penn State University has had a few destructive riots since the 1990s that have resulted in thousands of dollars in damage and several arrests.

But none has been as destructive or consequential as the one Nov. 9 following the firing of legendary football coach Joe Paterno.

Thirty-eight people have been charged with participating in destructive behavior, and seven more arrests are pending, police said.

And later, the adults had their say…

BRADY: President Erickson referred questions about Paterno’s firing to the board of trustees, which issued a statement Thursday. It said trustees unanimously decided letting the coach go was in the best interest of the university.

That didn’t go over well at another meeting in the same hotel last night. Downstairs, a group of alumni who want to get rid of the entire board of trustees held a competing conversation. Former Penn State and pro football player Franco Harris responded to the board’s statement that it acted in the best interest of the university.

FRANCO HARRIS: They think that we are that dumb. That’s exactly what they said two months ago and they still want us to swallow that.

I heard that broadcast, the alumni sounded outraged that this mess was interfering with their football.

When the kids are trashing news vans and the adults are demanding a purge, you don’t want to be caught alone after dark…

Penn State says Mike McQueary, the graduate assistant who saw the alleged 2002 incident involving Sandusky and a young boy, will not be at Saturday’s football game because of “multiple threats.”

It’s fortunate that the young men who allege that Sandusky abused them haven’t had to face the mob.

Penn State suffered a violation, and the community may feel disgust and rage– either at the perpetrators or the victims for disturbing the peace. They feel hurt and aggrieved.

But for the victims and their families, there is uncountable loss. For them it is a grief like a bereavement. The children suffer a violation of their innocence, the parents will forever question why they so misplaced their trust. That poor and disadvantaged children are targeted for this kind of abuse just adds to the awfulness of the crime. And the rapist is a nice guy, who everyone likes, and no one would listen to a word against him. Imagine a child in the hell a perverse adult could create– with no way out and on one who can protect them.

If they choose to speak out in court, we will hear their side of the story. Perhaps then we will have to acknowledge how destructive this kind of crime is.

Three authors this month have published dispatches from the gates of hell.

Margaret Atwood’s short story, ‘Stone Mattress’ is described by the author as a crime story. A woman calculates whether she can get away with murder. Atwood’s fictional rapist, a rich boy who lured the woman years ago to what was supposed to be a prom date, but was a setup for a gang rape, is a character so vile that– Margaret, I would have kept him alive a bit longer. Perhaps long enough to see his ship disappearing over the horizon as he waves unseen on the shore while night falls and the wolves howl behind the next rise. Just a suggestion.

Dorri Olds, in the New York Times 1/15/12 has an essay, ‘Defriending My Rapist.’ This story is a horrific echo of Atwoods fiction, taking place maybe 20 years later, in the 70’s. In this memoir the same dynamic is in play. A thirteen year old girl, excited to be included with the cool kids, is lured into the woods and gang-raped. She has no more power to make sense of this crime or seek justice than Atwood’s fictional protagonist. Years later she gets a ‘friend’ invitation on Facebook. The rapist is just a regular guy. She sends an oblique message that she hasn’t forgotten what they did to her. Is there a person with a conscience to read it? What does that man think when he looks at his own children?

In the same issue of The Times,
Dr. H. Lee Kagan writes
about providing emergency care to a rape victim in Haiti. Dr. Kagan delegates the rape exam to a nurse who is competent but gives no word of comfort. The victim has no other choice than to go back to the camp where her attackers may find her. There is no evidence taken or hope of justice.

If you think that can’t happen here, think of Dorri Olds having to go back to school and face those boys. Look at the violence and outrage at Penn State and imagine why a ten year old boy would have no safe place to go. It does not excuse criminals to say they act within a culture that shelters and allows them to rationalize their crimes– rather it’s an indictment of the culture.

There are people who are psychopaths, who lack a conscience, who sit in solitude inventing new ways to damage the world. But they are not so common. More common are those who go along to get along. Those who who only take out their rage on someone who’s asking for it. Regular guys.

That’s the way grown men convince themselves not to call the cops when one of them is caught raping a boy. Without the groupthink, rapists and child abusers would have a harder time hiding in plain sight.

If Jerry Sandusky feels any remorse for sending Joe Paterno to his grave in scandal he should. If Joe Paterno felt remorse for not protecting those children, he is beyond suffering now and beyond justice. The young men will have to live with the memories of what was done to them. What could we do to protect other children from abuse?

Day One RI has programs for all ages to teach children and young people how to recognize and respond to the pressures and social conditions that lead to abuse.

If you google ‘men against rape’ a page of sites come up. Men Can Stop Rape has good teaching materials and ideas for what young men can do to recognize and stop violence.

The abuse at Penn State is not an isolated act of criminal genius. It’s a sad story too often told when an organization is more invested in its image than in serving the children and youth they claim to exist for. It’s the kind of abuse that can happen when some people are deemed to be a little less important, expendable, not to be believed.

This truth-telling is very painful. It damages our sense of safety. It’s ugly.
But worse is to require victims to suffer in silence so that the rest of us can keep our illusions. In this imperfect world, the best we can do is to try to let children know that they are no less valuable than anyone else, and that if they are wronged they will be believed. And to value justice more than complacency, because we all might need a defender some day.

2 thoughts on “Violation/Betrayal

    1. thanks. I’m a huge fan of Margaret Atwood, and I think her story, ‘Stone Mattress’ went to a very dark place. Atwood put some explicit violence in her novel ‘In the Year of the Flood’. I wonder if she is working something out– you can’t stay stuck there long without despair.

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