Penn State, Revisited

With the release of former FBI Director Louis Freeh’s scathing report on the scandal and cover-up involving the Penn State football program, all of those issues that had once been in the category of “alleged” are now pretty much resolved.

Yes, I know, there will still be denials, and all kinds of legal positioning to minimize exposure to both criminal and civil actions. That is the nature of our judicial system. But the truth is out there for all who would want to, or are able to, absorb it and its implications. And there is much more than enough guilt to go around.

The only people who are blameless in this whole sordid affair are the children who were victimized. The university president, the trustees, Joe Paterno, the athletic director, the coaches, the assistant coaches, possibly even the players themselves… all are complicit in what presents as one of the most horrific examples of warped priorities, cruel heartlessness, systemic corruption in the world of major college sports, and, of course, utterly immoral and amoral behavior in the pursuit of the all-holy dollar.

None of this is, as we would say in my world, a chidush. It’s not really a surprise.

The most careful among us, and in the news media in general, had held out a faint hope that somehow, this story just couldn’t possibly be as bad as it sounded. After all, in the world of college athletics, Joe Paterno was a god- a legend in his own time. Besides being the coach with most wins in Division I college football history, he was said to have actually cared about academics, and having his players graduate. He took an interest in their lives beyond the football field. And so, we held out some small hope, asking ourselves how a man who cared so much about his athletes have possibly cared so little about disadvantaged young children who were being brutalized in the showers of his program’s locker rooms.

But we our hope was misplaced. And really… are you surprised? And if you are, why?

One learns a lot about people, and human nature, in the pulpit rabbinate. Being a part of a community over an extended period of time, and sharing its best and worst moments “up close and personal,” earns one an advanced degree in the school of life. And within that reality, the lesson that is the most difficult to absorb, but arguably, I think, the most important, is that people don’t tend to share everything about themselves, even with their closest friends, and especially when what they’re not sharing isn’t something they’re proud of. And to those who aren’t their closest friends, they reveal even less.

Let me put it another way. When all is said and done, the people that we think we know the best, we often don’t know well at all.

The most painful manifestation of this reality is when a family member- a loved one- acts in a way that seems to fly in the face of everything we thought we knew about him or her. We learn of an affair, or an addiction, or a serious criminal involvement, and we strain to understand how the person that we love and thought we knew could possibly do such a thing. And the answer is… we didn’t know him/her as well as we thought, because people hide things. Or, as Dr. House used to say on his show that I miss greatly, “everyone lies.”

There were, to understate the obvious, hundreds of thousands of people who thought they knew Joe Paterno because they knew his legend. They knew his public persona, the carefully scripted version of his life that the Athletic Department at Penn State wanted them to know- that Joe Paterno wanted them to know. But obviously, they didn’t know the real him- the complete him.

They didn’t know that at the same time that he was professing ignorance of Jerry Sandusky’s pedophilia, he had actually been aware of it from the very first incident at Penn State in the late 1990’s. They didn’t know that at the same time that he was “praying for the families” of the abuse victims and for the victims themselves, he was also negotiating a severance package for himself that would cushion his “choosing to retire now” by granting him a few million dollars a year, use of the university private jet, an office on campus…

I can’t help but wonder…what happened to shame? Where has it gone in our culture? Wouldn’t you think that a person like Paterno, who had been discovered to be complicit in covering up a crime of this scale, would want to walk quietly off the stage with his proverbial tail between his legs, and not be thinking monetary gain and private jets?

To my mind, Jerry Sandusky is not the issue here, because he’s a sick man with a sick compulsion. He acted as he acted because he’s a pedophile, and that’s what pedophiles do. They prey on children.

It’s the people around pedophiles who matter, as much or more than the pedophiles themselves, whether they are Catholic bishops, Brooklyn Chassidim, or college officials. Sandusky himself does not dismay me as much as the people who were around him all these years. The university president, the athletic director, all the coaches who had to know what was going on, Sandusky’s family, Paterno’s family, probably some of the players as well… Could no one person there find it within him or herself to blow the whistle on all this? Was this just the worst case of not wanting to harm the goose that laid the golden egg?

I live and work in the borough of Queens. Many years ago, a young woman named Kitty Genovese was raped outside of her home. Many people heard her screaming, but each one left it to the next person to call for help or provide it, and the result was tragic. Our tradition teaches that if one witnesses a sin being committed, even by a leader or an important community personality, one is obligated to tell of it. Asher lo yaggid, v’nasah avono… If you fail to tell, you bear the burden of sin (Leviticus 5:1).

The Torah had it right thousands of years ago…

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.