Thursday, November 10, 2011

Baby Steps

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.


  1. I hadn't heard about this until today, not being from the US and all. I'm still more in agreement with this guy, because really? I can't see how this just got gently and quietly swept under the carpet. In particular I can't see how the graduate student could just walk away - even though he went to the authorities, he still left the child there.

    That part to me is just... well, even allowing for shock, it's still unbelievable.

    What really gets me is that the graduate student noticed that both Sandusky and Victim 2 saw him. Talk about haunt your nightmares.

    Then again, from having read the Grand Jury Presentment there are 17 adults minimum who knew that there was something seriously wrong with Sandusky's interactions with children. That's not including the other janitorial staff on shift, and any additional police who read the 1998 report, nor anyone that these people confided in. "Only" two adults walked in on him in the act, true.

    I just find it difficult to believe neither of them came forward to police immediately. Nor can I believe that they didn't at the very least ask Sandusky what the hell he was doing.

    I get how you can get to where they are now by baby steps. But seriously, to see a man raping a child and do effectively nothing? That I don't understand. To know that the man saw you, and still do nothing? To know what you saw, and see no effective changes being made, and still stay silent?

    To know that the child saw you, and still do nothing for 24 hours?

    I really, really do not understand this.

  2. I agree with you about McQueary, the graduate student. He should have told Sandusky to stop, and either called the police or taken the child home, told the boy's family what he saw, and let them call the police while giving his name and phone number so he could be interviewed as a witness. I think the second course of action might have been less traumatic for the child, since calling the police on the spot might make the boy think he was the one who had done something wrong. Sandusky targeted troubled children whose interactions with the police probably hadn't been positive.

    I focused solely on Paterno's behavior because Paterno has his defenders. When the Penn State board of trustees fired him, students rioted. Literally rioted: they even overturned a media truck and damaged it. McQueary, OTOH, is getting death threats.

    What I wanted to address in this post was the tendency people have to think, "I can see myself doing that, so it's excusable". Very few people have reacted to this story by saying they can see themselves doing what McQueary did. Many people have reacted by saying JoePa did enough. That's why I focused my blog post on him.

  3. Yeah sorry, I did realise that that was what you were doing after I'd kind of gotten over the anger. I hadn't heard about the rioting either - seriously? I thought where I lived was over-invested in the local football code.

    I can and can't understand Paterno's actions too - seriously, did he think that was an adequate or even an appropriate response? "Oh yeah, just don't bring kids onto the campus"? I mean, really? When no one contacted him to take it further, Sandusky was still around and nothing basically happened? It was a total "oh well, told someone, moving on and washing my hands" reaction as far as I can see. And on the other hand this was someone he'd worked with, trusted, etc etc and he'd passed it up higher. Which still was a completely inadequate response when nothing then happened - at a bare minimum surely the charity he was working with should have been informed there was a problem. Sheesh.

    One thing that did occur to me this morning after sleeping on it was that there were 3 adults at least who walked in on Sandusky doing something compromising. Of the three the one who saw what was the least compromising situation - the situation that could have been explained by the "wrestling" comment - was the one who called the cops. He was also the only one outside the Penn U system, which makes me wonder. He was also the only one whose job depended on him reporting what he saw, come to think of it.

    It also makes me wonder why the janitors aren't being vilified as much as the graduate student and the two or three senior football people - class and power issues presumably.

    I seriously can't get over how many people had at least some idea that there was a problem, including the two who walked in on him actually in the act and still nothing happened.

  4. I know, mind boggling, isn't it? And this isn't an isolated incident. From what I've been reading, it is typical that before pedophiles are finally caught, there have been signs along the way and they typically have many victims: I've heard estimates from 80 to 200. We really, really need a way to make kids feel more comfortable at speaking up immediately when someone approaches them and adults more aware that pedophiles look like completely normal neighbors and friends.

  5. Stopping the conflation of "homosexual" and "paedophile" would also help. Two different things, completely - but if you're in a culture which is very homophobic and you're a child who is targeted it makes it much, much more difficult to come forward I think because of the extremely mixed messages.

    (Also I notice that heterosexuality and paedophilia aren't grouped, despite many paedophiles targeting girls.)

    80-200 is terrifying. Reading the Grand Jury document I really got a sense for the first time of how grooming actually works, and how much effort and care goes into targeting the victims. Victim 5 (I think) stood up to him, and as a result Sandusky backed off because he was too much trouble and the threat of discovery was too high. Other victims - well you could see the mixed messages they were getting at the time in between the lines of their testimony, and understand how they ended up isolated.

    The making adults more aware that paedophiles look like (and, on many levels are) normal people is key, and to my mind explains so much of the inaction at Penn U. No one wants to believe that the person they like and trusted is capable of anything like that. On that level, yeah, I understand why the baby steps were taken in the direction they were even while the rest of my mind is still stuck in disbelief.