Open Thread: Penn State’s “total disregard” for victims

Note: This article deals with child molestation. If it will cause you distress to read it, please don’t.

Former FBI director Louis Freeh has issued a report after an exhaustive investigation into how Jerry Sandusky managed to molest boys for quite a long time without getting caught. His conclusion?

It cited former Penn State University president Graham Spanier, former vice president Gary Schultz, former head football coach Joe Paterno and Athletic Director Tim Curley, now on leave, as never demonstrating “through actions or words, any concern for the safety and well-being of Sandusky’s victims until after Sandusky’s arrest.”

This is depressing, but not exactly surprising. Molestation of strange boys in semi-public places actually isn’t that easy to hide. If you keep doing it over and over for years on end, there will be witnesses. The problem here is that the witnesses chose, or felt compelled, to be complicit rather than to do the right thing. See also: Catholic church.

Why does this happen? That’s what I want to understand, because in knowing why people collaborate with rapists, we might find a way to prevent it in the future.

“None of them ever spoke to Sandusky about his conduct,” Freeh said. “Nothing was done and Sandusky was allowed to continue with impunity. … None of these four men took responsible action.”

But now read this:

“What I found to be extremely telling and critical in deciding not just what I thought recommendations should be, is the janitors,” Freeh said. “These are the employees of Penn State who clean and maintain the locker rooms in the Lasch building where young boys are being raped. They witness, what I think in the report is probably the most horrific rape that’s described. And what do they do? They panic. The janitor who observes it says it’s the worst thing he ever saw. He’s a Korean war veteran. He said he’s never seen anything like that. ‘It makes me sick.’ He spoke to the other janitors. They were awed and shocked by it. But, what did they do? They said they can’t report this cause they’d be fired. They knew who Sandusky was.”

Privilege clearly plays a part. Sandusky wasn’t just a white male – he was also a VIP. But why did Sandusky’s superiors, who had power over him, not stop him from molesting kids? Where is this “total disregard” coming from?

Is it that they saw these kids as unimportant? Is it that they just didn’t want to get involved, because sometimes whistle blowers don’t come off as well as they should? They – and in the case of Paterno, his family – have claimed they just didn’t quite know what was going on, but Freeh is having none of that, and I agree. At the very least, they should have created an atmosphere in which janitors felt welcome to report what they saw.

So why didn’t they? Keep in mind that the average person, even when they don’t care that much about the victims, is grossed out by the idea of shaking hands with a child molester. These men didn’t just cover up for Sandusky; they continued to work with him. What was going on in their minds?

Comments

  1. twicker says

    Truly disgusting news. Utterly unsurprising (to me), but truly disgusting nae-the-less.

    Some thoughts re: your post:

    First, I think it might need a trigger warning, given the discussion (not being someone easily triggered, and definitely not triggered by this, I’m not sure of all the etiquette; I defer to your expertise).

    Given that my reply includes similar discussion, mine might also — though, if there’s one for the article, would mine need it? Unsure …

    And, given that I’m unsure, I’ll err on the safe side:

    TRIGGER WARNING:
    I’m about to further discuss child molestation/rape (of boys *and* girls), and the lack of people acting to protect those children.

    On with the comments …

    Privilege clearly plays a part. Sandusky wasn’t just a white male – he was also a VIP.

    First, from the evidence we have in psychology, the important factor was the VIP aspect – along with the fact that this VIP was heavily connected to the social identity of the single most powerful institution in that area — namely, Penn State Football. If he’d been a white male who was, say, the head of the IMF, he’d’ve been perp-walked ages ago. If Paterno had had a son who married a WOC and the WOC had been raping children, there’d’ve been a massive coverup, since it wasn’t just Sandusky that was under threat: it was the very foundation of the institutional/social identity of these people that was perceived to be under threat. The janitors likely perceived themselves to be under threat because the institution – and its Glorious Figurehead Paterno – would have been under threat. Better to let that lion sleep (pun intended).

    Now, you can certainly argue that (a) football is a particularly male-centric sport, complete with its aggrandizement of male power/privilege (you’d be absolutely right), and that (b) by not reporting it, they actually ended up bringing far greater damage down on their institution (correct again), but, unfortunately, we humans are really, really good at perceiving the threats, and consequences thereof, when they’re proximal, and we suck at really accounting for the distal ones (especially here in the US; that whole cultural + (probable) biological components thing).

    But why did Sandusky’s superiors, who had power over him, not stop him from molesting kids? Where is this “total disregard” coming from?

    Is it that they saw these kids as unimportant? Is it that they just didn’t want to get involved, because sometimes whistle blowers don’t come off as well as they should? They – and in the case of Paterno, his family – have claimed they just didn’t quite know what was going on, but Freeh is having none of that, and I agree. At the very least, they should have created an atmosphere in which janitors felt welcome to report what they saw.

    So why didn’t they? Keep in mind that the average person, even when they don’t care that much about the victims, is grossed out by the idea of shaking hands with a child molester. These men didn’t just cover up for Sandusky; they continued to work with him. What was going on in their minds?

    So – absolutely, they should have created the atmosphere you describe; however, they didn’t. That’s not unusual among human organizations; it’s tragic, it has awful consequences, but it’s altogether too common. They likely saw the good in their institutions (and the bad was surely just the “bad apples,” right? They’ll be gone soon, yes? Um, no and no … ). They wanted to preserve the good that they perceived the institution to be doing, so they ignored the bad (even the awfully, horribly bad). They also likely wanted to see themselves as good – and they themselves were part of this institution, so, if *they’re* good, then *obviously* the institution must be, so this must be *really rare* and not really worth reporting – right? (Again: no)

    If all this sounds eerily like the same set of forces that keep various forms of privilege in place, and prevent the privileged from being able to see their own privilege, well … bingo.

    Welcome to the perpetuation of rape culture, where friends of rapists don’t report the rapists because, well, “they’ve really done some good things – like, they adopted a cat once!” Powerful things, those social identities …

    Various sources that might be of interest, if you’re really wanting to dig further into these forces:

    Social identity and self-categorization:
    http://www.psych-it.com.au/Psychlopedia/article.asp?id=75

    Marilyn Brewer’s Optimal Distinctiveness Theory (on why people join groups that have strong, distinctive identities):
    http://www.psych-it.com.au/Psychlopedia/article.asp?id=239

    Related work on moral identity:
    http://www.psych-it.com.au/Psychlopedia/article.asp?id=314

    Linda Treviño at Penn State is a great organizational ethics researcher – and is, in fact, researching, “the ethical crisis at Penn State:”
    http://php.smeal.psu.edu/smeal/dirbio/displayBio.php?t_user_id=lt0

    Dan Ariely has a lot of work on how we manage to maintain our self-concept even while doing (blatantly obviously) immoral behavior:
    http://danariely.com/

    And none of this would be complete without shout-outs to two of the most (in)famous experiments of all time in this realm:
    Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment:
    http://www.stanfordalumni.org/news/magazine/2011/julaug/features/spe.html

    The Milgram Experiment (originally designed to show how we are so very, very different than those evil Nazi Germans, and ended up showing that we are just exactly like those evil Nazi Germans):
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milgram_experiment

    Now – as to your question about keeping people honest, one way is to make sure that they – and the institution/social group they identify with – are publicly humiliated (e.g., here), so that people realize that, no, keeping these things secret does *not* protect anyone. Beyond this, feminism has lots to say about how to protect people (no means no, yes means yes, etc.). I’m sure there are many other great ideas out there; IMNSHO, they just need to be informed by the reality that this outcome was utterly predictable and that, therefore, the attempts at changing the behavior cannot be aimed at, “making bad/abnormal people good/normal,” but at, “making environments safe for everyone, so that otherwise good people aren’t put in contexts where, yes, they’ll be bad — and they will be able to be bad without fearing swift and severe consequences.”

  2. Cloudtigress says

    What was Sandusky’s win/loss record? How much money wax he able to pull in to Penn State’s coffers? Prioritie$ mu$t come first, ya know, le$t the very influential (and very rich) alumni and the $port$ fan$ take their attention$ to Penn $tate’$ rival teams….

  3. not a nittany lion says

    Where is this “total disregard” coming from?

    it’s absolutely endemic to the place and saturates every attitude toward people with less, little or no power.

    I had the misfortune to teach at a satellite campus of Penn State for a good chunk of the past decade. My first semester there, my predecessor, who retired early just to get the hell out, told me, “You will learn at some point that it is better to be unemployed than to work for Penn State.”

    I have had a tenure-track job at Penn State, and I have been unemployed. My predecessor was right: unemployment is better. Leaving that place was one of the best things that ever happened to me.

    it’s an awful place, run entirely through an old boys’ network. I knew when I was there that women and people of color were treated horribly, while blatantly sexist and illegal behavior by white men was winked at or aggressively protected. Of course I had no idea what was being done to children there. While the rape of children is beyond sexism, misogyny, and racism, it’s part of the same continuum, since there is a clear sense at Penn State that the only people who really matter are white men, who can do what they want and will punish anyone who tries to stop them.

  4. Cheryl says

    twicker,

    Your comment on social identities and why people don’t report rapists brought to mind another discussion about Paterno I’ve been involved with. Several people have said (in as many words) “But Paterno did so many good things for Penn State! He brought up the academic standards of the football team! He was an excellent coach! We can’t forget that!” And that makes him turning a blind eye to what Sandusky was doing okay how, exactly? It’s disgusting.

  5. Dani says

    It’s hard to imagine unless you’ve lived in central Pennsylvania (or maybe around a large university similar to Penn State), but the football program almost completely defines Penn State; it’s the first thing most people think about in relation to about the university and it is a HUGE, HUGE deal. Joe Paterno (and, to an extent, other members of the coaching staff), have near god-like status, and to question them or their methods is to incur a lot of anger from their fans.

    People were defending them left and right when the news of what has been going on there first broke. One person I know began unfriending people on Facebook who had negative things to say about the coaching staff; another pulled the “but he’s done so much good for Penn State!” bit because Paterno had been such a role model to her. There were tons of “We ARE (the first part of a “We ARE…PENN STATE!” chorus). Protests occurred in State College…not because people were angry at what Sandusky had done, but because they were angry that their beloved football coaches were being accused of wrongdoing. A lot of people still, even since Freeh’s report came out, are saying that the media is being too hard on certain people who covered up what Sandusky was doing. Of course the media should be hard on them; they covered up child rape!

    I’ve read speculation that the reason for the coverup was fear of bad publicity and that is completely plausible to me. Penn State was coming off of a losing football season and the public was calling for Paterno’s retirement; I can completely see them keeping quiet because, what are human lives to the success of the football program? They even knew about a 1998 investigation that yielded no results, so there was no way that they could have thought that Sandusky was innocent.

  6. says

    Dani,

    I grew up in a small city with a state university football team that brought a lot of revenue into the city. While I was in high school, it was discovered that campus security had been covering up rapes of female students for years, if the accused were football players. They even told students to report rapes to the campus security rather than the police. I doubt they ever figured out how many rape reports had been “filed” in the trash can. On the bright side, the county sheriff did some press interviews emphasizing that crimes must always be reported to actual police/sheriff/law enforcement, never any “security” group.

    But I never shook the feeling that once the publicity died down, they probably went right back to business as usual – probably because there was absolutely no punishment for any of the accused, and it wasn’t the university itself that exposed its own wrongdoing.

    Remember a few months ago when Apple audited one of their Chinese factories and found workers were being treated horribly? Many people hate on Apple for that. I applaud them for doing the audit when it would’ve been so easy to just keep on not knowing, and therefore not being responsible. When a company blows the whistle on its own mistakes, I tend to think the CORE maangement is ethical. When someone else has to blow the whistle, I tend to assume the corruption is through and through.

  7. Red says

    Dani:
    It’s hard to imagine unless you’ve lived in central Pennsylvania (or maybe around a large university similar to Penn State), but the football program almost completely defines Penn State; it’s the first thing most people think about in relation to about the university and it is a HUGE, HUGE deal.Joe Paterno (and, to an extent, other members of the coaching staff), have near god-like status, and to question them or their methods is to incur a lot of anger from their fans.

    People were defending them left and right when the news of what has been going on there first broke.One person I know began unfriending people on Facebook who had negative things to say about the coaching staff; another pulled the “but he’s done so much good for Penn State!” bit because Paterno had been such a role model to her.There were tons of “We ARE (the first part of a “We ARE…PENN STATE!” chorus).Protests occurred in State College…not because people were angry at what Sandusky had done, but because they were angry that their beloved football coaches were being accused of wrongdoing.A lot of people still, even since Freeh’s report came out, are saying that the media is being too hard on certain people who covered up what Sandusky was doing.Of course the media should be hard on them; they covered up child rape!

    I’ve read speculation that the reason for the coverup was fear of bad publicity and that is completely plausible to me.Penn State was coming off of a losing football season and the public was calling for Paterno’s retirement; I can completely see them keeping quiet because, what are human lives to the success of the football program?They even knew about a 1998 investigation that yielded no results, so there was no way that they could have thought that Sandusky was innocent.

    I wonder how many of them actually care about the victims.

  8. Dani says

    Jennifer Kesler:
    Dani,

    I grew up in a small city with a state university football team that brought a lot of revenue into the city. While I was in high school, it was discovered that campus security had been covering up rapes of female students for years, if the accused were football players. They even told students to report rapes to the campus security rather than the police. I doubt they ever figured out how many rape reports had been “filed” in the trash can. On the bright side, the county sheriff did some press interviews emphasizing that crimes must always be reported to actual police/sheriff/law enforcement, never any “security” group.

    But I never shook the feeling that once the publicity died down, they probably went right back to business as usual – probably because there was absolutely no punishment for any of the accused, and it wasn’t the university itself that exposed its own wrongdoing.

    Remember a few months ago when Apple audited one of their Chinese factories and found workers were being treated horribly? Many people hate on Apple for that. I applaud them for doing the audit when it would’ve been so easy to just keep on not knowing, and therefore not being responsible. When a company blows the whistle on its own mistakes, I tend to think the CORE maangement is ethical. When someone else has to blow the whistle, I tend to assume the corruption is through and through.

    I agree. The troubling thing with Penn State is, I could completely see them going back to business as usual after this dies down. There are still so many people defending not only Joe Paterno, but the culture at large that made it possible for so many kids to be raped over such a long period of time, and that shows me that they just don’t get it. And it’s highly possible that they never will.

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