Seattle is a long way from Penn State University. But maybe not.
Up on Capitol Hill Shepherd’s Counseling Services is one of only a few agencies in the country offering help for male and female adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Shepherd’s works quietly, unobtrusively, for obvious reasons, but theirs is a never-ending battle.
Child sexual abuse is a hidden epidemic in this country — affecting as many as one in five children — and it cuts across racial and socio-economic lines. Silence, or indifference, incubates the crime.
That horrifying reality was given short shrift during the recent memorial service for former Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno, who died of lung cancer Jan. 22 at age 85. Paterno’s death saved him from having to answer to the growing number of accusations from young males who say they were sexually victimized by his assistant coach Jerry Sandusky over more than a decade.
Paterno maintained that he “gave full disclosure to his superiors,” proclaimed Nike co-founder Phil Knight at the service, who was widely lauded for even raising the subject of the scandal. Nobody else did. “Whatever the details of the investigation are,” Knight said, “this much is clear to me: There is a villain in this tragedy that lies in that investigation, not in Joe Paterno’s response to it.” The comment drew a prolonged, standing ovation.
Human beings cannot bear too much reality, T. S. Eliot wrote — evidently. It’s up to Sandusky’s alleged victims to bear it. Instead of being regarded as obscene and disgusting, the standing “O” signaled business as usual.
Indeed, Paterno, the quintessential “role model,” showed his true colors last November when he led a crowd of supporters outside his home in a “We Are Penn State” chant.
Psychologists have done studies on closed systems — universities, the military, corporations and families — and probed how the unthinkable becomes possible. Various studies of bureaucratic enablers of the Holocaust have located a state of being between knowing and not knowing, a place where too many, it appears, prefer to dwell.
That’s where Paterno situated himself. That’s what Knight and his applauders excused.
Penn State faculty members, some no longer in place, have admitted in news broadcasts that they heard rumors of Sandusky’s behavior for years and did nothing about it. Their inaction reinforces the notion that maintaining a university brand was more important than the welfare of other, younger human beings; that, indeed, they would rather not know.
Denial, in all its forms, is an old story. Unfortunately, it continues to receive fresh excuses. As long as respectable denial and rhetorical cluelessness like Knight’s control the sexual-abuse conversation, tragically, “We are Penn State.”