In The News: A Riff on Penn State


“May God bless you with enough foolishness
to believe that you really can make a difference in this world,
so that you are able, with God’s grace,
to do what others claim cannot be done.”
~The Fourth of a Four-Fold Franciscan Blessing~


As a citizen of PA I have been, like thousands of others, reeling in the wake of events that have occurred in our state over the past week.  A child sexual assault scandal has rocked a hallowed institution, and ended the careers of a number of powerful men.  Arrests have been made and further investigations are ongoing.

Besides being shocked and appalled by what has been happening under our very noses for many years, we hear expressions of outrage, disgust, fear and sorrow.  Personally I have felt them too.  Admittedly I am not a Penn State graduate, nor am I am fan of college football.  I follow sports only at Olympics time and whatever commentary or news is covered by NPR.  I have been known to go into a coma at the sound of football commentary on TV.  So my concerns don’t really extend to those entities.

What I think this is about is the assault on innocent children, and the abuse of power by people who apparently believe that sustaining  institutional structures and the cash cow of college football  (in this case) is more important than protecting those who are vulnerable, unprotected and have no power at all.

It isn’t even really about Penn State and college football;  unfortunately this misuse of power and scandal has besmirched the Catholic Church, the Mormon Church, (probably every other church to some extent), other professional sports teams such as the Red Sox, and maybe even a local day care center in your community.

At the risk of sounding like an alarmist or shocking you, what I am saying is that no group or community is immune to it.

These acts are not perpetrated by monsters, although we like to call them that.  They are not mentally ill people who have some “chemical imbalance” or brain dysfunction which keeps them unable to control their impulses.  They are ordinary people who make awful choices.  That they themselves were once similarly abused is likely the case.  However, they have other options for dealing with pain, rather than inflicting it on others.

And what about the silent witnesses?  They are ordinary people too.  People who look and live an awful lot like you and me.  And when you think about it, the witnesses by far out-number the monstrous perpetrators who inhabit so many nightmares.  And the situations of abuse that seem to go on and on before they are finally (if ever) reported, are only made possible by people who turn a blind eye.

In one of many conversations I had last week, someone suggested that the witnesses at Penn State didn’t call the police because they feared for their jobs.  As it turns out, their jobs would not be protected, at least in this state, because only certain occupational groups (teachers, counselors, doctors and nurses) have a duty to report.  Ironically, coaches who deal with hundreds of minors, do not.  Neither does John or Jill Q. Public.  So protecting one’s career and financial interests can certainly outweigh doing the moral or ethical thing without legal consequences.

It would certainly be uncomfortable to buck the power of the institution, to risk disapproval and maybe even the ire of those who are at the top of the heap, wielding the most power.  Lord knows it is uncomfortable standing up and opposing any existing order.  Most of us are way too invested in pleasing other people…especially our “superiors” or those we see as authorities or deities (with a small “d”).

But what I want to remind you of is that there is tremendous power in the simple witnessing of anything you see or hear.  There must be some sociological law that serves as the counterpart of nuclear physics which says that anything being observed is changed just by that process of being observed.

Can even one single individual change the world order?  Yes, I have to believe that we can.  The fate of one potential victim or one injured victim can be changed if we are willing to endure our own discomfort and stand up, dial a phone number and say, “I have seen this, or I have heard this, or I have reason to be concerned about this. “

Institutions of power can only abuse that power if the witnesses are all complicit in denying what they have seen and heard and been concerned about.  One individual, especially when joined by others, can topple the biggest house of cards.  You may think it is foolish to believe, but history is rife with examples of those who dared to speak up and of those who did not.  The consequences are clear, and the children are still suffering.