My oldest brother Gabriel committed suicide. He was 36 years young and had his whole life ahead of him. Instead of living it, he poisoned himself with carbon monoxide and left his wife and two-year-old daughter to find his lifeless body slumped in the backseat of his Toyota. But while Gabe killed himself at 36, he really died 23 years earlier.
At the age of 13, Gabe decided he would attend a Jewish all-boys boarding school outside of Baltimore, Maryland. He went there to make friends, further his education and to have some stability since my dad moved our family around a lot. He did not get those things in Baltimore. Instead, he was sexually molested and raped repeatedly by the principal, Rabbi Ephraim Shapiro. This killed Gabe’s spirit and potential. His heart stopped beating 23 years later.
I learned more about Gabe after he died than I did while he was alive. Among the many things I gathered post-mortem, was that he was molested and raped from 1973 to ’75. He was not alone. Dozens of his classmates and hundreds of boys before and after Gabriel were sexually molested and raped by the “rabbi.” Gabe did not tell anyone he was molested. He only acted out. His abuse was one of many facts we learned after his suicide. I also learned that Gabe’s wicked temper, severe homophobia, fear of intimacy and physical contact, and the addictions that plagued him — all came from the abuse he endured, not from his DNA. His attendance at this school led to these behaviors, and ultimately, to his premature death.
I don’t intend to dedicate another word to the monster Shapiro, but I do want to focus on the pain that my brother endured for 23 years of his life, the agony my family lives with every day, and the excruciating anger I feel toward those who must have known of this abuse and chose to remain silent.
This week, the NCAA made an unprecedented ruling and found Penn State University guilty of a significant cover-up regarding the sexual abuse of young boys by its assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky. The NCAA found the silence of coaches and staff, including head coach, Joe Paterno, to be equally egregious, and worthy of the most severe penalties. In short, Sandusky is a twisted monster. Society is stuck with that. The people who ignored his behaviors for the betterment of the team, school or win column were called out loudly for their silence.
Pundits from all sides will weigh in on whether the penalties will bite or will change the course of the game. Frankly, I don’t care. I’m satisfied, though, that the NCAA said in a full-throated voice what our moral compass already knows: Silence in the face of crime is itself a crime. We learned that lesson in ancient history, we were reminded of it at Nuremberg, and it holds true in University Park, Pennsylvania, today.
Paterno was a god at Penn State. Joe-Pa were words spoken on campus like “baruch Hashem” is uttered in Monsey. He was invincible; a legend and hero who lived modestly and strove to be a blue-collar everyman. His iconic image was bronzed, surrounded by his players, representing his wins and determination and longevity outside the stadium that could have borne his name.
In the wake of this scandal, we learned that his silence has squelched those deity-like references. His statue has been torn down and his 112 wins eradicated, evaporated as if they never happened, as if to say they do not count and they never will. And in the process, the crowds and cheers that surrounded his name and the university that was synonymous with his cardigan sweaters has quieted to an absolute hush, like a critical fumble with seconds left in the game that will surely cost the team a victory and its legacy.
There is a sliver of solace in this unfortunate saga. The details of the penalty are far less important than the overall magnitude of its message. The NCAA’s actions reaffirmed that silence is an accomplice. Sweeping things under the rug just makes someone an accessory, not a savior.
This move ought to be a very loud and stern church bell ringing (or shofar blast) to the priests, rabbis and others in the world of influence and access to kids that sexual predators will be prosecuted and so will those who hide it from others. Let those who think the church is stronger with the father in the parish or the community is better with the rabbi at the synagogue tremble. Let this be a cry to all of us to lift up the rug and check all brooms. We will no longer value the sanctity of people of the cloth at the cost of the souls they have raped; we will not save names and careers over lives and innocence.
If someone had broken their silence years ago, perhaps my brother would have had the fortitude and hope to pen this piece, instead of me in his memory.