by Maureen Down (New York Times)
June 16, 2012
Everyone is good, until we're tested.
We hope we would be Sir Thomas More in "A Man for All Seasons," who dismisses his daughter's pleas to compromise his ideals and save his life, saying: "When a man takes an oath, Meg, he's holding his own self in his own hands. Like water. And if he opens his fingers then, he needn't hope to find himself again."
But with formerly hallowed institutions and icons sinking into a moral dystopia all around us, has our sense of right and wrong grown more malleable? What if we're not Thomas More but Mike McQueary?
Eight tortured young men offered searing testimony in Bellefonte, Pa., about being abused as children by Jerry Sandusky in the showers at Penn State, in the basement of his home and at hotels.
But the most haunting image in the case is that of a little boy who was never found, who was never even sought by Penn State officials.
In February 2001, McQueary was home one night watching the movie "Rudy," about a runty football player who achieves his dream of playing at Notre Dame by the sheer force of his gutsy character. McQueary, a graduate assistant coach and former Penn State quarterback, was so inspired that he got up and went over to the locker room to get some tapes of prospective recruits.
There he ran smack into his own character test. The strapping 6-foot-4 redhead told the court he saw his revered boss and former coach reflected in the mirror: Sandusky, Joe Paterno's right hand, was grinding against a little boy in the shower in an "extremely sexual" position, their wet bodies making "skin-on-skin slapping sounds." He met their eyes, Sandusky's blank, the boy's startled.
"I've never been involved in anything remotely close to this," the 37-year-old McQueary said. "You're not sure what the heck to do, frankly."
He was slugging back water from a paper cup, with the bristly air of a man who knows that many people wonder why he didn't simply stop the rape and call the police instead of leaving to talk it over with his father and a family friend.
Tellingly, he compared the sickening crime to the noncomparable incident of being a college student looking for a bathroom during a party at a frat house, and inadvertently walking into a dark bedroom where a fraternity brother is having sex with a young lady.
He said he felt too "shocked, flustered, frantic" to do anything, adding defensively: "It's been well publicized that I didn't stop it. I physically did not remove the young boy from the shower or punch Jerry out."
He told Paterno the next morning and went along with the mild reining in of Sandusky, who continued his deviant ways.
Put on administrative leave, McQueary has filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the school. (He was promoted to receivers coach and recruiting coordinator three years after the incident.) "Frankly," he said, "I don't think I did anything wrong to lose that job."
It's jarring because McQueary looks like central casting for the square-jawed hero who stumbles upon a crime in progress, rescues the child thrilled to hear the footsteps of a savior, and puts an end to the serial preying on disadvantaged kids by a man disguised as the patron saint of disadvantaged kids.
Bellefonte, the town in the shadow of Beaver Stadium, also looks like a Hollywood creation: the perfect sepia slice of rural Americana reflecting old-fashioned values. There's an Elks Lodge, a Loyal Order of Moose hall, a Rexall drugstore, the Hot Dog House with hand-dipped ice cream, and a nice senior citizen shooing you into the crosswalk. This was a big "American Graffiti" weekend in town: the annual sock hop and hot rod parade.
How could so many fine citizens of this college town ignore the obvious and protect a predator instead of protecting children going through the ultimate trauma: getting raped by a local celebrity offering to be their dream father figure? A Penn State police officer warned Sandusky in 1998 to stop showering with boys; Saint Jerry ignored him.
The first witness for the prosecution, now 28, recalled that Sandusky wooed him starting when he was 12, letting him wear the jersey of the star linebacker LaVar Arrington.
In his Washington Post blog, Arrington, a retired Redskin, wrote that it was "mind-blowing" to hear about the boy's hurt. He recalled that he had asked the kid, "Why are you always walking around all mad, like a tough guy?"
He assumed that since the boy had been involved with the Second Mile charity, he must be from a troubled home.
"I will never just assume ever again," he said of dealing with an angry child. "I will always ask, and let them know that it's O.K. to tell the truth about why they are upset."
That accuser testified that at the Alamo Bowl, Dottie Sandusky, a good German, came into the hotel room while her husband was in the shower threatening to send the boy home if he would not perform oral sex. Jerry came out and she asked him, "What are you doing in there?" But she soon disappeared.
"She was kind of cold," the young man recalled. "She wasn't mean or hateful, nothing like that, just, they're Jerry's kids, like that."
Another accuser, now 18, testified that he screamed when Sandusky raped him in the basement; though Dottie was upstairs, there was no response.
NBC's Michael Isikoff reported on a secret file discovered in Penn State's internal investigation, led by Louis Freeh, the former F.B.I. chief. Graham Spanier, a former university president, and Gary Schultz, a former vice president, debated whether they had a legal obligation to report the 2001 shower incident, and in one e-mail, agreed it would be "humane" to Sandusky not to inform social service agencies.
That revoltingly echoes the testimony in the trial of Msgr. William Lynn in Philadelphia, where the late Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua ordered the shredding of a list of 35 priests believed to be child molesters. Lynn testified that he followed Bevilacqua's orders not to tell victims if others had accused the same priest of abuse, or to inform parishes of the true reason that perverted priests were removed and recirculated.
When a seminarian told Lynn in 1992 that he was raped all through high school by the monstrous Rev. Stanley Gana, Lynn conceded he let it fall "through the cracks." He also admitted he "forgot" to tell the police investigating a preying priest that the diocese knew of at least eight more cases.
Yet Lynn claimed he did his "best" for victims.
Inundated by instantaneous information and gossip, do we simply know more about the seamy side? Do greater opportunities and higher stakes cause more instances of unethical behavior? Have our materialism, narcissism and cynicism about the institutions knitting society — schools, sports, religion, politics, banking — dulled our sense of right and wrong?
"Most Americans continue to think of their lives in moral terms; they want to live good lives," said James Davison Hunter, a professor of religion, culture and social theory at the University of Virginia and the author of "The Death of Character." "But they are more uncertain about what the nature of the good is. We know more, and as a consequence, we no longer trust the authority of traditional institutions who used to be carriers of moral ideals.
"We used to experience morality as imperatives. The consequences of not doing the right thing were not only social, but deeply emotional and psychological. We couldn't bear to live with ourselves. Now we experience morality more as a choice that we can always change as circumstances call for it. We tend to personalize our ideals. And what you end up with is a nation of ethical free agents.
"We've moved from a culture of character to a culture of personality. The etymology of the word character is that it's deeply etched, not changeable in all sorts of circumstances. We don't want to think of ourselves as transgressive or bad, but we tend to personalize our understanding of the good."
Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard law professor dubbed "the Elvis of cyberlaw" by Wired magazine, was seduced by his rock star choirmaster at the American Boychoir School in Princeton in the 1970s when he was 14 and turned into his supportive "wife," as he calls it. "It made me really feel like a grown-up. Typically, sex doesn't have to be terrible."
In 2004, he represented another victim in a successful lawsuit against the school. He told me that "an astonishing 30 to 40 percent" of his peers there had been abused, "and everybody knew and nobody did anything." That echoes the horror at the Horace Mann School in the Bronx in the 1970s and 1980s, where a culture of sexual abuse by teachers developed.
And as if we needed more evidence that perversity lurks everywhere, the Jehovah's Witnesses have been ordered to pay more than $20 million to a woman who was abused for two years, starting at age 9, by a congregation member in California. She had filed a lawsuit accusing the church of instructing elders to keep sex-abuse accusations quiet.
"You don't want to be the outsider who betrays the institution; whistleblowers are always the weirdos," Lessig said. "There are so many ways to rationalize doing the easy thing. And it's really easy for us to overlook how our inaction to step up and do even the simplest thing leads to profoundly destructive consequences in our society."
I asked Cory Booker, the Newark mayor, why he ignored his security team and made a snap decision to run into a burning house to save his neighbor. He said his parents taught him to feel indebted to all the people who had sacrificed for his family. And he recoiled in law school at the idea that there was not always a legal obligation to help the vulnerable.
"We have to fight the dangerous streams in culture, the consumerism and narcissism and me-ism that erode the borders of our moral culture," he said. "We can't put shallow celebrity before core decency. We have to have a deeper faith in the human spirit. As they say, he who has the heart to help has the right to complain."