Years ago, I met a group of online friends through a Get Organized interest group on AOL. As AOL went through changes and the message board disappeared, we became an email support group and then Facebook friends. As we supported each other through project after project - decorating, de-cluttering, dieting and/or exercising, finding new careers and getting our children through their teens, our unfailing mantra was “baby steps”. There was no project so big or daunting that it could not be broken down into small steps and achieved a bit at a time. For us, baby steps were a useful tool to achieve worthy goals.
In the last few days, it has occurred to me that baby steps can be just as useful in taking you to places you don’t want to go. Like most of the rest of the country, I have been riveted (horrified, but riveted) by the sex abuse scandal at Penn State. (Warning: that link contains disturbing references to child sex abuse.) I have been particularly interested in the disagreements over whether Coach Joe Paterno did enough in 2002 by reporting what he heard from Mike McQueary to Athletic Director Tim Curley and VP for Finance and Business Gary Schultz. Why didn’t he call the police? Why didn’t he insist McQueary call the police?
I can see how it happened, though. By the time McQueary told Paterno, the immediate emergency was over. So even if Paterno’s first thought was, “Mike, you’ve got to call the police right now”, I can understand a little voice saying, “Maybe I should give Curley a heads-up first. What if he gets calls from the police or the press and has no idea what’s going on?”
And once the decision was made to tell Curley and Curley set up the meeting with McQueary and Schultz, I can understand Coach Paterno thinking it was all being taken care of, and letting it go. One little baby step leading to the next.
I can understand the chain of events, but the problem is, nothing got done and Jerry Sandusky was able to spend nine more years victimizing boys. When a logical seeming chain of events leads to a horrific outcome, something is wrong with the logical seeming chain of events. There were a lot of people who knew about bits and pieces of what Jerry Sandusky was doing for years, and yet nobody stopped him.
I can think of times in my own life when baby step by baby step, I talked myself out of good deeds I meant to do or into bad decisions. I can empathize with Coach Paterno. Most of the time when I hear people say, “I can see myself doing that” the unspoken end of that sentence is, “so it was okay to do”. I see it differently. I can see myself doing that, but that doesn’t make it right. It just means that you don’t want to use me as a moral exemplar. I’m not going to hold up liquor stores or kick the cat, but if I wander into a moral gray area, I might wander back out on the wrong path.
So, yes, I can see how it happened, but that doesn’t make it right. Nine more years of victims makes it very far from right. Sometimes we do the very human, understandable, wrong thing, and need to live with the consequences. Sometimes we get there by baby steps.